26th March 2020
A South African non-profit foundation that runs a WhatsApp service on maternal wellbeing for the country’s health department, has set up a similar programme to keep people informed about COVID-19. Since the start of March, the service has 2 million users and 100,000 enquiries an hour. The country, which has already restricted travel, closed schools and banned large gatherings, has high numbers of people with immune systems that are compromised by HIV/AIDS and TB, for whom the new coronavirus could be deadly. People who send the word “hi” to the service run by the organisation called Praekelt receive information on the latest news about the virus, symptoms and where to seek medical care.
The arrival of COVID-19 in Venezuela comes, as with many low- and middle-income countries, on the back of food and medicine shortages, inadequate water and sanitation systems, and high levels of poverty. For many, the standard advice for avoiding infection with COVID-19 – washing hands often and wearing masks when necessary – are impossible to implement. Hospitals, meanwhile, have no supplies, no beds and often no medical staff.
By mid-May, 2.2 million people in India could be infected with COVID-19 if it continues to spread at its current pace, according to estimates (as yet not peer reviewed) by a group of researchers, including a team from Johns Hopkins University. While India, which has a population of 1.4 billion, has taken preventive action to stop the spread of the virus, the scientists stress that the country needs to go much further. This includes the massive expansion of testing (and making this free of charge), setting up mobile laboratories to reach rural parts of the country and providing a universal basic income to ensure that millions don’t fall into poverty that they may never recover from.
25th March 2020
A study of the new coronavirus in Singapore – which has managed to stop the spread of the virus despite having imported cases - has found that putting a series of social lockdowns in place, including closing school - will have the biggest effect on stopping the spread of COVID-19. The country has already had experience in dealing with a serious threat from another coronavirus, the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) outbreak.
Three out of four of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. The degradation of the planet and of wildlife habitats because of mining, farming, housing or industrial production has led to the crisis we are now experiencing with COVID-19, says the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen. The environmental damage combined with the illegal global animal trade is allowing zoonotic infections – those that come from animals – to thrive and infect people more often.
Low and middle countries including Algeria and Indonesia are stockpiling the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine after evidence emerged that they could be used to treat infection with the new coronavirus. India, meanwhile, has announced it will ban export of the drug. Other medicines being investigated for treatment of COVID-19 are antivirals used against flu and those against HIV.
24th March 2020
Half of all African countries have now reported cases of COVID-19 and though the pandemic is not affecting Africa as much as other continents, countries in Africa are responding rapidly to try to control the pandemic. The most affected countries are implementing strategies to stop the spread of COVID-19, including South Africa, which is introducing a 21 day lockdown. Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Senegal are also badly affected and using a variety of strategies such as enforced lockdown and contact tracing to curb the pandemic.
The United Nations plans to create a fund to prevent the spread of coronavirus and support treatment, especially in low-resource countries with weak health systems. The plan comes as the virus is emerging in many low- and middle-income countries, including India, where cases are on an exponential growth.
Despite Africa having a young demographic - 1 in 5 Africans are aged 15-24 years - 69% of the world’s over-60s live in low- and middle-income countries, where health systems are weak and the coronavirus pandemic could end up having the biggest effect. Many older people live in nursing homes or institutions that are unregulated, and where an outbreak of COVID-19 could be deadly. Older people also face having less access to health services and support.
23rd March 2020
Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, said today that the upwards trend of COVID-19 cases could be starting to level off, but that they would only be sure once data from over the weekend was submitted. Of the 24,859 cases of coronavirus in Germany so far, only 97 have died – a much lower death rate than in neighbouring countries in Europe.
The Chinese city at the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic had been in lockdown for 2 months since 23 January, and residents have cautiously started going about normal life. Only people living in compounds that have been deemed coronavirus-free have been allowed out. The rest of China is slowly back to normal as well, and any new cases reported have been imported, according to the country’s National Health Commission.
Practising social distancing is clearly impossible in a crowded prison cell, and many countries including the UK and USA are responding in unprecedented ways to stop the coronavirus pandemic from taking hold. Low-level offenders or prisoners who are extremely sick or old are being released in an attempt to save lives.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a bot called Clara to help people make decisions about what to do if they have potential symptoms of COVID-19. The bot is not a diagnostic tool, but intended to guide people as to when to seek medical care. The UK’s NHS has a similar service called 111 online to identify whether or not they need medical attention.
Losing the sense of smell or taste, even in the absence of any other symptoms, is turning out to be a characteristic of infection with the new coronavirus. Some people with these symptoms have no nasal congestion either, which might usually explain a loss of smell. Reports of the symptoms have been coming in from all over the world. In a study of 2,000 coronavirus patients from South Korea, around one in three people had lost their ability to smell.
19th March 2020
This graphic story shows how China and South Korea, through stringent control measures, have drastically reduced the number of new COVID-19 infections. Neighbouring Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have also kept numbers down through strict monitoring and early action.
Of the more than 2,500 people who have died in Italy from the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 75% had high blood pressure, about 35% had diabetes and a third suffered from heart disease. Only 0.8% of those who died had no underlying illness. The average age of those who have died from the virus in Italy is 79.5.
The misinformation – through memes or WhatsApp groups – is rife, with some claiming that sunshine, ice-cream or gargling with salty water can kill the virus, all of which are untrue. Some of these claims have been falsely attributed to UN agencies, such as UNICEF and WHO. These claims, say experts, can lead to greater paranoia, fear or stigmatisation, or complacency.
The World Health Organization is to launch a multiarm, multicountry clinical trial for potential coronavirus therapies to kickstart the global hunt for drugs to treat the new coronavirus. Ten countries are due to take part in the trial: Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand. The trial will test four drugs or drug combinations: the antiviral drug remdesivir; a combination of two HIV drugs, lopinavir and ritonavir; lopinavir and ritonavir plus interferon beta; and the antimalarial drug chloroquine. All have shown effectiveness against the new coronavirus in vitro or animal studies. However a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that a test in Chinese patients of Kaletra, a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir was not effective against COVID-19.
One in five people hospitalised with the new coronavirus in the USA are young adults between ages 20 to 44, according to a study by The US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC)’s COVID-19 Response Team. Although the elderly were most at risk of dying, younger people nevertheless became seriously ill. The researchers add that the limited testing that has happened so far, underlines the importance of surveillance of COVID-19 cases.
18th March 2020
So far, children seem to have been the most protected in the coronavirus pandemic, with few deaths. The largest study so far (2143 cases of under-18s that were reported to the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) the new coronavirus in children shows that while most children have only a mildness, very young children and especially babies can become seriously ill. About 6% developed a very serious illness and one died.
Dutch scientists are to test whether the BCG vaccine could protect healthcare workers against coronavirus, since is known to stimulate the immune system and may lead to milder symptoms in healthcare workers who do get infected. The BCG vaccine already seems to boost immune systems to protect people against the flu. The experiment will mean randomly giving 1000 workers either the vaccine or a placebo. If the vaccine appears to have an effect, all healthcare workers will be given the option to have the vaccine.
The COVID-19 virus is making healthcare workers much sicker than other patients, even when they are young. Frontline health workers are at a higher risk of coming into contact with the virus, but experts wonder whether they someone get a higher dose of the virus. This could seriously threaten the coronavirus response even more – as it is, healthcare systems are already expected to be overwhelmed far beyond their surge capacity.
A model simulation by infectious disease researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, shows that if China had put in place its control measures a week earlier, it could have prevented 67% of all cases there. If the country had started 3 weeks earlier (from the beginning of January, when the virus was identified), the overall infections could have been cut by 95%. These findings could serve as a warning to countries who have been slow to put stringent control measures in place. Cities that suspended public transport, closed entertainment venues and banned public gatherings before they even saw a single case of COVID-19 case had 37% fewer cases than cities that didn’t implement such measure.
India’s low number cases could be because it was one of the first countries to close its borders, canceling visas and denying entry to most foreigners. The population is also younger than other countries and the weather is warmer than Europe, though it remains to be seen whether these are protective factors. The fact that antibiotics are also dispensed without prescription is normally a major red flag in driving antibiotic resistance, but in this case it may actually treat secondary infections and therefore be protective against the coronavirus.
16th March 2020
Iran has reported nearly 14,000 cases and 724 deaths, and 15% of deaths were in people younger than 40 years and otherwise healthy, far higher than the proportion seen elsewhere in the world, where most deaths were in the elderly. The reason behind this currently remains unclear. The country has so far had the worst outbreak of any country in the Middle East.
The first human trials of a COVID-19 vaccine started today on March 16. The vaccine, developed by US company Moderna and funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), will be tested in various doses in 45 healthy volunteers. Inovio Pharmaceuticals is due to start clinical trials on a COVID-19 vaccine next month.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the COVID-19 virus can survive on hard surfaces, such as plastic and stainless steel, for up to three days – much longer than the virus that causes SARS. This could explain the rapid global spread of the vaccine, despite containment efforts.
Last week, the UK started off with a COVID-19 policy of focussing on protecting vulnerable people through herd immunity (in which people in the population who have already been infected, prevent future spread by developing natural resistance), that seemed in contrast to the rest of Europe’s measures of social distancing. Now, the UK government’s chief science adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has said that is a concept and not the government’s policy, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will ban large gatherings this week, which may suggest the UK will follow the rest of Europe soon.
While most people who are infected with COVID-19 recover, some seem to get sick again, causing concern over whether they are being re-infected. Infectious disease experts are saying they believe that it is more likely that they are relapsing from their existing infection rather than being re-infected. The thinking behind this is that although this coronavirus is new, the family of viruses have been around for a while and infection generally results in immunity, although nothing is certain at this stage.