Compiled by veteran medical journalist Brian Owens, this roundup of some of the newest science on the COVID-19 pandemic, straight from the scientific journals, is presented by Hakai Magazine in partnership with The Tyee.
Immunity seems to last a long time
As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, we are starting to get a better idea of how long immunity lasts for people who were previously infected. A new study has found that the immune responses by the antibodies that block the virus, and the T-cells that kill it, decline only slightly over the course of eight months post-infection. Over the same period, the number of B-cells that make new antibodies often increases, indicating that immunity may be quite long-lasting.
Almost one-third of Americans don’t want vaccine
A survey of 5,000 people in the United States suggests that 31 per cent do not intend to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to them. The likelihood of vaccine refusal was highest among women and Black people, as well as conservatives. Women were 71 per cent more likely to turn down the vaccine, followed by Black people at 41 per cent. And each one-point increase in a person’s conservatism (on a seven-point scale) increased the odds of vaccine refusal by 18 per cent. The top two reasons for refusal were concerns about safety and effectiveness, though Black people were also concerned about a lack of financial resources or health insurance.
How to convince people to get the vaccine
To bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, at least 75 to 80 per cent of the population needs to get vaccinated. Researchers drawing on behavioural economics and consumer research have developed 12 strategies to promote vaccination. These include things like: using analogies to help people better understand how the vaccines work; leveraging the initial scarcity to make early access to the vaccines a mark of honour; and offering compromise options, like giving them the option to get the vaccine now and donate plasma, just get the shot now, or sign up to get it later.
Another study found that simple fact-check tags on social media posts that contain misinformation about vaccines can generate more positive attitudes about vaccines — especially when they are provided by credible organizations like universities and health-care institutions.
Half of transmission is from asymptomatic people
People who never develop symptoms to a COVID-19 infection may be responsible for more than half of all transmission of the disease, according to a computer model of the virus’s spread. This indicates that identifying and isolating people who are already showing symptoms will not be enough to bring the pandemic under control and reinforces the importance of masks and physical distancing.
Quebecers ate better during lockdown
An ongoing survey of eating habits in Quebec has found that, contrary to expectations, there was a small increase in healthy eating in the province during the early phase of lockdown last spring. There were small improvements in the intakes of whole grains, greens and beans, total vegetables, total dairy, seafood and plant proteins, and total protein, especially among younger people, people with less education, and those who are obese. The prevalence of food insecurity also dropped from 3.8 per cent to one per cent among people in the survey.
Policymakers use new and highly-cited science
Government agencies and international organizations tend to use research that is the newest and most highly cited by other scientists when making policies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 policy documents have an unusually high rate of using the newest science — a rate 10 times larger than for other policy documents — and papers referenced in policy documents have collected on average 40 times more citations than papers not referenced. Policy documents also disproportionately reference peer-reviewed research published in top medical and specialty journals despite the increasing amount of research released on preprint servers.
Patients in intensive care more likely to have brain dysfunction
COVID-19 patients admitted to an intensive care unit in the early months of the pandemic were subject to a significantly higher burden of delirium and coma than is typically found in patients with acute respiratory failure, according to a study of more than 2,000 patients in 14 countries. Around 82 per cent of patients were comatose for a median of 10 days, and 55 per cent were delirious for a median of three days — double what is seen in non-COVID-19 ICU patients. Delirium in an ICU setting is associated with higher medical costs, and greater risks of death and long-term ICU-related dementia.
While COVID-19 itself may predispose people to brain dysfunctions, the researchers found that other factors, such as the use of old-fashioned treatment practices like deep sedation and restrictions on family visitation, also appear to have played a role.
Most patients experience extended symptoms
More than three-quarters of COVID-19 patients have at least one ongoing symptom of the disease six months after first falling ill, according to a study of almost 2,000 patients in Wuhan, China. Fatigue or muscle weakness are the most common symptoms, with sleep difficulties, anxiety, or depression also frequently reported. Another study found that while fatigue, ill-health, and breathlessness were all common following COVID-19, these symptoms appear to be unrelated to the severity of initial infection. People who had less severe initial infections were just as likely to suffer from ongoing problems as those who were sicker to begin with.
Inequality exists in testing, too
The fact that the health and economic effects of the pandemic have fallen harder on poorer and racialized communities has been well-documented, but a new study has found that access to COVID-19 testing has also been unequal. The researchers found that in St. Louis, Missouri, between March and August last year, just 23 per cent of tests were done in the 23 zip codes accounting for half of hospitalizations — and most of those areas had majority Black populations. By contrast, more than half of all tests were done in the 86 zip codes accounting for just 25 per cent of hospitalizations — and none of those were majority Black. Even within the same zip code, Black residents had consistently lower rates of tests per hospitalization compared with white residents.
Trust in science and government up during pandemic
There has been a dramatic increase in people’s trust in government and public health scientists in Australia and New Zealand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of 500 people in the two countries found that around 80 per cent of respondents agreed that their government was generally trustworthy, while around 75 per cent said management of the pandemic had increased their trust in government, and more than 85 per cent had confidence that public health scientists worked in the public interest. The increased trust has led to higher usage of government COVID-19 phone apps, the researchers found.