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Science + Tech

Pregnant People Should Be Offered Vaccines. And More Science Journal News

The latest roundup of pandemic findings gathered by Hakai Magazine.

Brian Owens 2 Feb 2021 | Hakai Magazine

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.

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.

Pregnant or breastfeeding people should be offered vaccines

People who are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to conceive should still be offered vaccines against COVID-19, according to researchers writing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Although there is no data on whether the vaccines are safe in these groups, there is also no evidence of risks to getting vaccinated. No adverse events were seen in the 23 participants in the Pfizer-BioNTech trial who conceived after vaccination.

The benefits of vaccination likely outweigh the risks: a study of 240 pregnant patients found that their COVID-19 mortality rate was significantly higher than that for women of the same age. And, vaccination may also help to protect the baby. Those who had antibodies to COVID-19 were found to pass some of them on to the fetus before birth. The World Health Organization had previously recommended against vaccinating pregnant people, but last week updated its guidance to say there was no “specific reason to believe there will be specific risks that would outweigh the benefits of vaccination for pregnant women.”

Canadian Medical Association Journal, Jan. 27, 2021

American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Jan. 27, 2021

JAMA Pediatrics, Jan. 29, 2021

Who will panic buy during a crisis?

A psychological model based on animal foraging theory and consumer behaviour during the beginning of the pandemic has identified the characteristics associated with overbuying during a crisis. Households that engaged in overbuying typically bought a wide range of products, rather than focusing on a single category like toilet paper.

Overbuying was associated with higher income, the presence of children in the household, and a greater degree of psychological distress, threat sensitivity and mistrust of others. Surprisingly, greater neighbourhood belongingness was also linked with over-purchasing, perhaps because close neighbors talk amongst themselves about product shortages.

PLOS One, Jan. 27, 2021

Intensive care mortality falling, but the rate of decrease is slowing

Compared to the start of the pandemic, fewer people admitted to intensive care with COVID-19 are dying. But the improvement is slowing and may have plateaued. Overall mortality of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units around the world fell from almost 60 per cent at the end of March 2020 to 42 per cent at the end of May, and again to 36 per cent by the end of September. The improvement is mainly due to doctors learning which treatments work best for patients in the ICU, but the plateau may indicate they are reaching the limit of possible improvements.

Anaesthesia, Feb. 1, 2021

Much government COVID info has an accessibility problem

A survey of COVID-19 information on government websites in nearly 200 countries has found that most contain features that may make navigation difficult for disabled populations. The researchers found that only Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Poland, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States fully conformed to international accessibility standards. For the rest, the most common problems were ones to do with the site’s incompatibility with a variety of assistive technologies, and whether graphical elements are presented via audio or other methods.

Frontiers in Medicine, Jan. 27, 2021

Contact tracing apps can be more effective than manual tracing

A study of Spain’s COVID contact tracing app, Radar, has found that it identifies more close contacts than manual contact tracing alone. A study of the app in the Canary Islands found that around 30 per cent of the population was using the app and it could detect around 6.3 close contacts per infected individual, more than double the national average using manual contact tracing. The researchers say the success of such apps depends on effective communications campaigns to encourage people to download and use them. The Spanish app works in much the same way as Canada’s COVID Alert app, using the protocols developed by Apple and Google.

Nature Communications, Jan. 26, 2021

Schizophrenia second only to age in COVID mortality risk

People with schizophrenia are almost three times as likely to die from COVID-19 than those without the psychiatric illness. This makes schizophrenia the second biggest risk factor for mortality after age. The study found that people with other mental health problems, such as mood or anxiety disorders, were not at increased risk of death, and that the higher risk cannot be explained by other factors that often accompany serious mental health disorders such as higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and smoking. The researchers believe there may be something about the biology of schizophrenia itself that is making people more vulnerable to COVID-19 — possibly an immune system disturbance linked to the genetics of the disorder.

JAMA Psychiatry, Jan. 27, 2021

COVID has become seasonal

A study of COVID-19 cases, mortality rates, and other epidemiological data in 221 countries has found that they are significantly correlated with temperature and latitude, indicating that the disease has become seasonal, like the flu. The researchers say that our own immune systems, which can be influenced by temperature and nutrition, may be partially responsible for the seasonality.

Evolutionary Bioinformatics, Jan. 26, 2021

Another new variant found

Researchers have identified another new variant of SARS-CoV-2 that is spreading around the globe. The variant has a mutation in the spike protein N439K. Viruses carrying this mutation do not cause more severe disease and do not spread more easily, but can bind to the human ACE2 receptor, which they use to enter cells, more strongly. The mutation also provides resistance to some people’s antibodies, and to the monoclonal antibody drugs authorized for emergency use in the United States.

But not all variant news is bad. New data on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shows that it is just as effective against the more transmissible UK variant B117, and another study has found that the T cells in our immune system target a broad range of sites on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, giving us the ability to recognize and fight off multiple different variants.

Cell, Jan. 25, 2021

Science, Jan. 29, 2021

Cell Reports Medicine, Jan. 27, 2021


Identifying COVID personality types

People react to and deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways, and a variety of distinct COVID personality types are beginning to emerge. Among the 16 types identified by Mimi Lam from the University of Bergen in Norway are “deniers” who downplay the viral threat; “realists” who recognize the reality of the potential harm and adjust their behaviours; “invincibles” often youth, who believe themselves to be immune; and “blamers” who vent their fears and frustrations onto others. Lam says the emergence of these identities helps to explain the politicization of the pandemic and the racism, discrimination and conflict observed as a result.

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, Jan. 27, 2021

Air purifiers may do more harm than good in some spaces

Installing air purifiers in small, enclosed spaces like elevators can change air circulation patterns in ways that actually increase the spread of saliva droplets carrying SARS-CoV-2, according to a computer simulation. The researchers found that the position of vents and the rate of ventilation had a significant effect on air circulation, and that the risk of airborne virus transmission was lowest for low ventilation rates.

Physics of Fluids, Jan. 26, 2021

Unemployment support helps keep people fed

A study in the United States has found that for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, receiving unemployment insurance decreases a person’s risk of food insecurity by a third, and halves the likelihood of eating less because of financial constraints. Receiving more coverage, such as the weekly $600 supplement available in the U.S. until last July, leads to an even bigger reduction in the risk of going hungry.

JAMA Network Open, Jan. 29, 2021  [Tyee]

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