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.
Long COVID is also common among young people with mild cases
Long-term complications are common in patients hospitalized with COVID-19, but a new study from Norway has found that more than half of young adults with only mild symptoms continued to have symptoms six months after their initial diagnosis. The long-term symptoms included loss of taste and smell, fatigue, trouble breathing and impaired cognition and memory problems.
A potential cause of long COVID
Long-term symptoms that affect about a third of patients after their initial recovery from COVID-19 may be caused by reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus, which lies dormant in most people’s cells. Researchers found that around 67 per cent of people with long COVID had antibodies indicating EBV had been reactivated, compared with 10 per cent of control patients. EBV, which can cause mono, is one of the most common human viruses — most people are infected with it at some point in their lives. The dormant virus can be reactivated under some circumstances, causing symptoms like long-term fatigue.
Citizens reward decisive governments
Governments that responded to COVID-19 with assertive policies and proactive communications were most likely to be supported by their citizens, while tentative responses were more likely to split opinion and be met with suspicion, according to a study of northern European countries. But while government support was high in all countries during the height of the crisis, messages critical of the government as well as conspiracy theories were also widely circulated.
Universal vaccine could protect against future coronaviruses, too
Researchers have developed a “universal vaccine” for coronaviruses that can protect against both COVID-19 — including dangerous variants — as well as other coronaviruses, including SARS, and other viruses that may make their way into the human population in the future. The vaccine is made with mRNA, similar to the Pfizer and Moderna ones currently in use, but instead of only coding for one virus protein, it combines RNA from different viruses. Mice who were given the vaccine produced antibodies to multiple coronaviruses, including the Beta variant of COVID-19.
Tree pollen can worsen the spread of COVID-19
Pollen from trees could help COVID-19 spread further and faster, according to research using a simulated willow tree. Researchers noticed that COVID-19 infection rates were correlated with pollen concentration and found that each pollen grain can carry hundreds of virus particles at a time.
A computer simulation of an outdoor gathering of people near a willow tree showed that the pollen passed through the crowd in less than one minute, which could significantly affect the virus load carried along and increase the risk of infection. The researchers suggest that outdoor masking and distancing recommendations based on local pollen levels could be used to better manage the infection risk.
COVID-19 drove decreases in life expectancy, especially in the US
Decreases in life expectancy during 2020 were much greater in the United States than in other rich countries. While life expectancy dropped in many countries, the loss of life expectancy in the U.S. was 8.5 times that of the average for 16 peer countries, including the U.K. and France (data for Canada was not available).
Life expectancy in the U.S. decreased by 1.87 years between 2018 and 2020, a drop not seen since the Second World War. The numbers are even worse for people of colour. Whereas life expectancy among white Americans decreased by 1.36 years in 2020, it decreased by 3.25 years in Black Americans and 3.88 years in Hispanic Americans. Brazil also experienced a large decrease in left expectancy — 1.3 years in 2020 and 1.8 years from January to April 2021.
Politics trumped health in COVID-19 responses
Political factors, such as the timing of elections and the strength of the executive branch, had a larger effect on COVID-19 strategies than health-care considerations. Researchers found that in countries with a federal system of government, like Canada, decentralization did not diminish the stringency of the overall government pandemic response. In fact, early on, policies in federations were more stringent than those in non-federations. Governments with weaker executive branches were more willing to enact more stringent policies than ones with powerful executives. Stronger executives also avoided making stringent policies if the next election date was closer.
Adopting mask mandates reduced infections in Kansas
Kansas implemented a mask mandate in July, but it was only enforced in 15 of 83 counties. Researchers found that the counties that adopted the mask mandate experienced significantly lower rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths compared with those that did not.
The first-ever COVID case was likely in China in mid-November 2019
Researchers have used a method originally developed to determine the date of extinction of a species to figure out when the first human case of COVID-19 arose. By running the extinction model in reverse, they determined that the first case of COVID-19 arose between early October and mid-November 2019 in China, with the most likely date of origin being Nov. 17. These findings support growing evidence that the pandemic arose sooner and grew more rapidly than officially accepted.
Contaminated surfaces not infectious
Researchers studying COVID-19 contamination on surfaces in a hospital have confirmed that contaminated surfaces are not likely to play a major role in virus spread. But identifying viral genome sequences from environmental samples could be useful for outbreak surveillance and monitoring the spread of new viral variants, the researchers say.