COVID-19 insights are critically important right now. They give us hope and help show the way forward. And also provide useful tips that may, just may, save annoyance or even lives. Today’s blog is a follow-on from the previous blog about COVID-19 mortality.
Let’s review a few of the useful tips that have emerged recently. Here are links with which you may jump to the major sections:
COVID-19 Insights: Winter and Humidity
One thing that’s known is that viruses spread faster in winter. In fact, summer is so hostile to viruses that common flu viruses seem to move to the southern hemisphere when we in the northern hemisphere are enjoying summertime. And of course they return to visit us when the seasons change.
Since the vaccine lives in humans (and in other animals), where it’s always body temperature, why would the virus care whether it’s snowing outside? There are several factors working here:
- In the winter we spend more time indoors, breathing each other’s air. Those conditions help the virus spread to new hosts. We have previously discussed the importance of cleaning and freshening indoor air.
- Viruses floating in the air and resting on surfaces best survive in very high or very low humidity. In the winter, we heat cold air and that decreases its humidity. Thus indoor air may have only 20 to 30% humidity. Low humidity helps the virus survive because the liquids surrounding it rapidly evaporate before they can damage the virus. We can make things much harder for the virus if we increase the indoor humidity to 40% in winter. A slightly warmer room may also help.
- In summer, the days are longer and the sun shines more brightly. This leads to an increase in ultraviolet radiation, and researchers believe that this UV helps suppress the COVID-19 virus. This seems plausible because earlier studies have shown that related coronavirus such as SARS and MERS are inactivated by UV. So that’s yet another reason why we are COVID-safer when outdoors.
Research on Face Masks
Face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus remain controversial in the US. Objection to masks is only one part of society’s impatience with restrictions on their behavior in the name of COVID prevention. Americans are not the only folks who are restless with coronavirus restrictions: a recent article reports riots in the Netherlands.
The Internet abounds with fake and false information about masks. However, where is the science? What is the truth?
– Masks are Difficult to Study
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to quantify what masks do or don’t do. Consider the following:
- There are many different kinds of face coverings – N95, paper, cloth, neck gaiters,…
- People often wear masks poorly: not fitted to the face, or even failing to cover nose or mouth.
- How would we collect data? There’s no smartphone app that tells when and how a person is wearing a face covering.
- Masks are only one element of infection prevention. How would a researcher separate out the interlocking effects of social distancing, clean air, asymptomatic spreaders and so forth?
Diligent readers will recall my discussion of clear research showing the benefit of masks. However, since the study involved hamsters, not humans, some people question whether the results actually apply to homo sapiens.
– New Research Quantifies the Value of Masks
Are you looking for real, extensive data into which to sink your teeth? Then you’ll be pleased to see the results of a recent study involving a third of a million people! The study, published in the journal Lancet, was celebrated in MedPageToday and even garnered a gushy editorial in Lancet. This work delivers valuable COVID-19 insights.
– Hundreds of Thousands of Research Subjects
Thirteen researchers across the US surveyed more than 378,000 people aged 13 and older using the SurveyMonkey.com web platform. They interrogated them in June and July 2020 asking them how often, and in which situations, they wore face masks. These self-reported results were correlated with respondent demographics and independent measures of physical distancing. And yes, there are always concerns about whether people are biased one way or another when they self-report. The authors detail their provisos in the article.
Now comes the tricky part. The researchers analyzed the data on coronavirus spread in each state and estimated how the reproduction factor R (how many people each victim infected) changed with time. They correlated this with the degree of mask-wearing in that area.
Yes, this is a complex analysis and it’s not as rock-solid as a controlled, repeatable experiment. But the Lancet editors, at least, were impressed with its careful design and execution.
Moreover, this study avoided a complication in other studies: the extent to which masks protect the wearer, versus protecting other people. The elegant part is: from a public health point of view, it doesn’t matter! As long as people behave so as to push reproduction R down below 1, coronavirus will die out and no longer haunt us.
– And the Results Are…??
OK, Art, enough explanation. What did they find out?
During the two-month study, the people surveyed reported a general gradual increase in mask-wearing. The researchers concluded that a 10% increase in self-reported mask-wearing was associated with 3.5 times the likelihood that their area would attain R less than 1. Moreover, communities with the highest mask-wearing and physical distancing had the lowest reproduction factor R.
Conclusion: Yes, masks work. They protect the entire population, and buy-ins by society are necessary to derive the greatest benefit.
– But All Is Not Rosy…
However, the researchers turned up a discouraging result, one which may not surprise us. They looked at the reported mask-wearing in twelve states that happened to mandate state-wide mask-wearing rules during the study. The states were Alabama, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.
The study did not see a significant increase in reported mask usage after statewide mask mandates were introduced. The Lancet editor tactfully says:
This finding suggests that, in the US, there is a disconnect between rules, messaging, and actions, and that further sociobehavioural research is needed on what motivates people who choose not to wear a mask to protect themselves and those around them.
In other words, if public health officials want to increase mask-wearing, government edicts are not likely to be very effective in the US! Perhaps other approaches – education, role-modeling, recruiting “influencers” – may work better.
COVID-19 Insights: Vaccines
Corinavirus vaccines are now, s-l-o-w-l-y, becoming available in the US. And we’re beginning to learn useful things about how to take the vaccine, and how effective immunity may be:
– Pause the Painkillers
When you get lucky enough or persistent enough to get your COVID-19 vaccine shot, here’s a tip for you: stop taking non-prescription painkillers for one or two days before your vaccine shot, and for seven days after it. Examples include aspirin, acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). (However, if you take painkillers under a doctor’s direction, consult your doctor before stopping them.)
Why should you pause? Because the vaccine stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies and memory cells that protect you from the virus. Painkillers blunt your immune system so that it doesn’t respond as strongly. This effect was found in a study of flu shots, which are similar to COVID-19 vaccines. Although some say it’s OK to take painkillers after receiving the vaccine, I would say, if you don’t need them, play it safe and skip them. A recent Forbes article gives a discussion that boils down to the same advice.
– How Long Immunity Lasts
If you acquire COVID-19 and then recover from it, you gain some immunity from re-infection. As we gain data, estimates of how long this immunity lasts started at three months, then increased to five months. Latest research suggests a protective range of eight months or even longer.
Since the vaccine stimulates the immune system in a way that simulates infection, the effect of the vaccine is likely to be similarly robust.
In the case of both kinds of immunity, it’s still possible for a person who’s immune to the disease to carry around the virus and infect other people with it.
– Will the Mutants Kill Us?
It’s normal for viruses to mutate. That’s why vaccine makers update the flu vaccine each year, to adapt to the virus mutations that have accumulated during 12 months.
When COVID-19 was new, humans had never seen it before and had little natural protection. That allowed the virus to spread without bothering to mutate. However, as people began to acquire resistance, we placed pressure on the virus that stimulated it to evolve.
When the virus mutates, it’s possible for it to become deadlier, and it may be that the South Africa variant has done this. However, that kind of mutation is not extremely likely, because a virus that kills off its host too effectively will die out, having no place to live.
What’s more likely is that a virus mutation may make it more infectious, as in the UK variant seems to have done. Higher infectiousness could help a mutation out-compete other forms of the virus. A virus could become more infectious by more vigorously attacking human cells, or simply by multiplying primarily in the nose and throat, where it can more easily be exhaled to infect other people.
Eventually—years or even decades in the future—COVID-19 could transition into a mild childhood illness. Or it may resemble influenza, being a nuisance but in most cases not deadly. The timing will depend on three major factors: how long humans retain immunity to the virus, how quickly the virus evolves, and how widely populations become immune during the pandemic itself.
– Better Vaccines Are On the Way
Many vaccines are under development, following a variety of approaches. As of 2/2/2021, the WHO tracker page describes 63 vaccines in clinical development and 175 vaccines at earlier stages of development. The most advanced of these candidates use 10 different platforms to deliver the goods. Most are being tested as two doses, injected into a muscle. However, 12 of the vaccines are being planned for only a single dose, and 2 of the vaccines are oral, not requiring injection at all.
One vaccine that looks especially promising to me is coming along at my graduate school alma mater Caltech. The team leader is Alex Cohen, a graduate student, and the study is presently showing good results in mice.
The principle of the vaccine is to create a mosaic nanoparticle containing surface proteins of eight different strains of coronavirus. The resulting mosaic vaccine protected the mice from a great variety of coronaviruses: not only the eight included in the mosaic, but other completely different variants. It appears that the variety of virus parts trained the immune system to recognize and mobilize against an extremely wide array of different viruses.
Another promising vaccine, also tested in mice, is from Dr. Inga Szurgot and colleages at Karolinska Institut in Sweden. It uses DNA that produces self-amplifying RNA in the recipient, allowing lower injection doses and perhaps fewer side effects. In addition, the researchers have shown that two different forms of the vaccine can work together to boost each other’s effectiveness.
So there we have some COVID-19 insights to brighten your day: some guidance on upping your home’s winter humidity; hundreds of thousands of endorsements for face masks; how to prepare for a vaccine shot; and the future of COVID vaccines as a pathway back to normal life. Here’s to your very good health!
Once again, here is a blog with images from a wordless novel by artist Lynd Ward (1905-1985): Gods’ Man (1929). Although most famous for his wood engravings, Ward also worked in other media and as a book illustrator. Many of Ward’s engravings are dark in content, telling the stories of troubled lives (“He whom the gods favor, dies young“). However, he also communicates very effectively when he depicts hope and possibility, as in the works shown here. I appended my own names to these untitled images.
I was not able to learn who currently owns the rights to these images. Therefore, I will quote Wikipedia’s principle of fair use under United States copyright law, asserting that showing low-resolution images (in this case, maximum 275 pixels) constitutes fair use when accompanied by a discussion of the artist and his works.