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Science + Tech

Science Is Messy, Iterative and Amazing. And More Pandemic Lessons

The final roundup of COVID-19 findings gathered by The Tyee.

Brian Owens 14 Sep 2021 |

Brian Owens is a freelance science writer and editor based in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. His work has appeared in Hakai Magazine, Nature, New Scientist, the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the Lancet.

The pandemic is not over yet, but this column is drawing to a close. The firehose of new scientific studies on COVID-19 has slowed to a point where it does not seem quite so overwhelming to try and keep up with the most important new discoveries. So this will be the last weekly entry with a roundup of new studies. But I will continue to write about science — on a variety of topics, not just infectious disease — for The Tyee in the future.

I learned a lot writing this column over the course of the past 18 months, and I hope readers also found it helpful in understanding and coming to grips with the pandemic that altered almost every aspect of our lives. Aside from the details of individual studies, such as those on how SARS-CoV-2 spreads, infects and sickens us, looking at dozens of scientific studies each week reinforced a few, big-picture facts. These are the things that I, and I hope readers as well, will take away from the science of the pandemic.

One is just how amazing the vaccines are. In less than a year, we were able to develop a variety of safe vaccines — including two using mRNA, a new technology that had never been tried outside of the lab before — with efficacy rates that are almost unheard of. The average seasonal flu vaccine is somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent effective. Many of the COVID-19 vaccines are more than 90 per cent effective, and continue to hold up well even as the virus mutates into new, more dangerous variants. Scientists have shown that when faced with an overwhelming problem (and given almost unlimited support from government), they can rise to meet almost any challenge.

Exciting new vaccine technologies are just one way to fight the pandemic. Time and again the research showed that simple behavioural interventions, like frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and especially wearing masks indoors were some of the most effective means of controlling infection, even after the vaccines began to roll out. But the extreme reaction among some groups to these basic public health measures highlights another thing I have learned this past year — just how much political identity influences how people see and interact with the world. Many of the studies I read showed how someone’s response to the pandemic was dictated by their political allegiance rather than objective reality. While the problem is not as severe in Canada compared with the United States, as I write this people are protesting at hospitals and harassing health-care workers across the country. When politics trumps science in matters of public health, we all lose.

While science taught us with astonishing speed how to beat this virus, it also showed just how much we need to do to deal with the inequalities within our society. A popular refrain during the pandemic has been “we’re all in this together,” but for economically disadvantaged communities, Indigenous peoples and people of colour, that has not always been the case. Although these groups were more vulnerable to COVID-19, they were consistently left behind when it came to access to testing, vaccines, and social or employment policies to ease the burden, which only exacerbated the toll the pandemic took on them. Never before have the impacts of the social determinants of health, and the need to address them, been so stark.

Finally, being immersed in the research for more than a year has reinforced for me, and I hope for readers, a fundamental truth about science: it is a gradual, messy and iterative process in which new knowledge builds on, and sometimes replaces, old — though not always in simple or straightforward ways. The early focus on cleaning contaminated surfaces mostly gave way to an emphasis on masks and proper ventilation as scientists learned more about the importance of airborne transmission. Potential treatments that showed promise early on, including hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and purified blood from survivors, turned out to be ineffective once larger and more rigorous studies were done. While these changes in our understanding of the virus could lead to frustrating and sometimes confusing changes in official advice throughout the pandemic, they were a sign that science was working exactly as it is supposed to — although both politicians and public health experts could have done a much better job of explaining that.

I hope readers have found the research I highlighted in this column helpful as they navigated the complexities of the pandemic over the past year and a half. I hope they have gained a better understanding of not only the virus itself, but how science works that will help with whatever comes next. But, because science never stops, I will leave you with a few final summaries of interesting research from the past week.

Booster shots not needed yet for most people

Vaccine efficacy remains high enough, even against the Delta variant, that booster shots for the general public are not recommended at this time, according to an expert review. On average, vaccination is 95 per cent effective against severe disease both from the Delta and Alpha variants, and more than 80 per cent effective at protecting against any infection from these variants. The researchers say that the limited supply of vaccines will save the most lives if they are given to those who have not yet received any vaccine. Any benefit from boosters will be less than the benefits of providing initial protection to the unvaccinated first. A more effective booster strategy would be to wait until new versions of the vaccines that specifically target the variants are developed.

The Lancet, Sept. 13, 2021

Vaccines improved mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a sharp rise in mental distress, but the rollout of vaccines helped to bring it back down. A study of more than 8,000 people in the United States found that people who were vaccinated between December 2020 and March 2021 reported decreased levels of mental distress after receiving the first dose.

PLOS One, Sept. 8, 2021

No serious side effects from vaccines for breastfeeding moms

Breastfeeding women who received one of the mRNA vaccines reported having similar side effects to non-breastfeeding women, with no serious side effects in the breastfed infants. More than 85 per cent of the breastfeeding women in the study reported temporary localized symptoms, such as pain, redness, swelling or itching at the injection site, and systemic side effects, such as chills, aches, fever and vomiting, with higher frequency following the second dose. Irritability and poor sleep were reported in some breastfed children, but no serious adverse events. A small number of women experienced a reduction in milk supply, but it returned to normal within 72 hours.

Breastfeeding Medicine, Aug. 31, 2021

Lockdown put a damper on passion in relationships

Relationship satisfaction, love, intimacy and passion were significantly lower post-lockdown compared with pre-lockdown in a survey of dating and married couples in India. The study found that commitment among those who were dating was unaffected, and activities like watching movies together, cooking and doing household chores were associated with love.

Family Relations, Sept. 8, 2021

Healthy plant-based diet linked to lower risk of COVID-19

People whose diets were based on healthy plant-based foods have lower risks of both contracting COVID-19, and of having serious symptoms once infected, according to a new study of how diet affects the virus. People with the healthiest diets in the study had a nine per cent lower risk of developing COVID-19 and a 41 per cent lower risk of developing severe COVID-19 than those with the unhealthiest diets. The researchers also found that the beneficial effects of diet were even more pronounced in people living in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation.

Gut, Sept. 6, 2021  [Tyee]

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