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.
Variants can avoid antibodies, but not T cells
One of the dangers of variant versions of COVID-19 is their ability to escape our immunity, potentially rendering current vaccines less effective. Now two new studies — one in vaccinated people and one in those with immunity acquired from a previous infection — have found that while antibodies generated by the original strain of the virus are less able to recognize variants, another part of our immune system, the T cells, had no such problem. And that may be enough. A third study found that T cell immunity can compensate for a lower or absent antibody response.
Vaccines work for cancer patients
Many people undergoing treatment for cancer are taking drugs that suppress the immune system, which could make vaccines for COVID-19 less effective. But a new study has found that around 90 per cent of cancer patients undergoing active treatment who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had adequate antibody responses to the vaccine, though the level of response was lower than in healthy controls.
Low testosterone linked to more severe COVID-19 in men
Men with COVID-19 tend to fare worse, on average, than women and many doctors and researchers have speculated that hormonal differences, possibly in testosterone levels, may be to blame. But new research has found that it is actually low testosterone levels in men that is associated with more severe disease. The low hormone levels do not necessarily cause severe disease — they could be a marker of some other physiological effect — but the researchers urge caution on some treatments being studied that focus on blocking or lowering testosterone to treat COVID-19 in men.
The burden of long-term COVID-19 on families
The ongoing, persistent, and often debilitating symptoms that many people experience even after recovering from COVID-19 are placing a huge burden on both the patients and the family members who must care for them. A survey of COVID-19 survivors and their families found that almost all of them were plagued by feelings of worry, frustration and sadness, and many experienced disruptions to family activities, sleep and their sex life. More than half reported an increase in family expenses. The number of families experiencing these issues is likely to be significant. Another study found that 45 per cent of people hospitalized for COVID-19 left hospital in significantly worse physical condition than before their illness, and nearly 20 per cent of patients lost so much ability they were no longer able to live independently after their release.
Opioid deaths spiked in Ontario during the first wave
The weekly number of opioid-related deaths in Ontario rose by 135 per cent during the first six months of the pandemic, with the most rapid increase occurring among those under the age of 35. In total, 1,237 people died of opioid-related causes during that time period, compared with 766 in the same six months of the previous year. The researchers say that increased social isolation and reductions in addiction services due to pandemic-related public health measures contributed to the increase in opioid deaths.
How well you taste bitter flavours is linked to COVID-19 outcomes
People who experience low intensity of bitter tastes, or no bitter tastes, are significantly more likely to test positive for COVID-19, to be hospitalized, and to be sick for longer. Conversely, those who experience greater intensity of bitter tastes are less likely to get sick. The researchers suggest that the genes linked to bitter taste receptors are closely associated with genes related to the strength of the innate immune system.
How COVID-19 causes rare inflammatory disease in children
Less than one per cent of children infected with COVID-19 go on to develop a dangerous condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, and researchers have now uncovered the mechanism that causes that complication. They found that viral particles remaining in the gut long after an initial COVID-19 infection can travel into the bloodstream, where they cause the hyperinflammatory immune response that is typical of MIS-C. The good news is that this mechanism also suggests a possible way to treat the condition, which the researchers intend to test in clinical trials soon.
Mass gatherings boosted COVID-19 during Malaysian election
Mass gatherings during an election in the Malaysian state of Sabah directly caused 70 per cent of COVID-19 cases detected in the state after the election, and indirectly caused 64 per cent of cases elsewhere in Malaysia. The election involved mandated in-person voting and political rallies, both of which resulted in a significant increase in interstate travel and in-person gatherings by voters, politicians and campaign workers.
Before the election, Malaysia had an average of 16 newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases per day for nearly four months. After the election, that number jumped to 190 cases per day for 17 days until lockdown policies were reinstated. The research highlights the importance of maintaining public health measures and finding alternative methods for holding elections during a pandemic.
Use of parks increased only a small amount in Australia
Public use of urban parks went up only slightly during the lockdown in Brisbane, Australia, driven by uneven use by different groups. A survey found that while 36 per cent of people increased their use of city green spaces, at the same time, 26 per cent reduced it. People who were already heavy users of parks, as well as older people, tended to reduce their use of the parks, while those who rarely or never visited the parks before tended to start using them more.