Coronavirus News Roundup, March 13 – March 19


The items below are highlights from the free newsletter, “Smart, useful, science stuff about COVID-19.” To receive newsletter issues daily in your inbox, sign up here.

For an explanation of why vaccines, in general, do not protect us for at least several days or even weeks after a final shot, see Katherine J. Wu’s 3/17/21 piece at The Atlantic. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says we should not start to change our behavior, e.g. “mingling maskless in small groups indoors, visiting the unvaccinated on a limited basis, and skipping post exposure quarantines,” until at least two weeks after the final dose of a two-dose vaccine or after a one-dose vaccine (in the U.S., this refers to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), Wu writes.  Until that two weeks has passed, infection with SARS-CoV-2 is quite possible. “The shot simply delivers a package of study materials to the body; immune cells must then internalize the information about the infectious invader, a complex process that unfolds over days or weeks,” Wu writes. Data collected by COVID-19 vaccine-makers shows that a “threshold of protection” is crossed two weeks after full vaccination. But “there’s nothing special about day 14,” according to an MIT immunologist, the story states. So, don’t mistake “the time of injection” as “the time of protection,” Wu writes.

Coronavirus variants such as the B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-Cov-2 that now is widespread in the UK and parts of the U.S., likely evolved over the course of several months in infected people with weakened immune systems, according to some virologists, reports Apoorva Mandavilli at The New York Times (3/15/21). Early evidence suggests that some SARS-CoV-2 variants might be more contagious or cause more severe COVID-19. If variants do originate in people with long-lasting SARS-CoV-2 infections, vaccination efforts should prioritize people whose immune systems are compromised, according to sources quoted in the piece. That category of people could include people with blood-related cancers, diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, as well as people undergoing chemotherapy or taking immune-suppressing drugs, the story states. However, this group of people might need additional protection from SARS-CoV-2. “For the same reason that these people don’t mount a strong immune response to the virus, vaccines might not work well in them. So they may need to be treated with cocktails of monoclonal antibodies as well,” according to a University of Michigan virologist, the story states (3/15/21).

For Kaiser Health News, Anna Almendrala describes efforts in California and in Chicago that are helping “disadvantaged people get vaccinated,” she writes. These efforts can be particularly useful in helping people who are low-income, disabled or isolated get vaccinated, according to the president of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County, the story states. The story links to an organization called Get Out the Shot: Los Angeles whose volunteers have booked thousands of appointments, Almendrala reports. “The most skilled vaccine bookers have memorized the days and times certain sites release a new batch of appointments,” the story states. And the story links to this site that’s helping people who live in California’s Inland Empire get appointments (3/11/21).

Here’s another way that people have scored COVID-19 vaccines sooner than expected, at least in Arizona — volunteer at vaccination sites, reports Steve Nielsen at Fox 10 Phoenix. There’s a waiting list for volunteer positions, Nielsen reports. Volunteer work includes scheduling appointments and checking people in, according to the director of the state’s Department of Health Services, the story states (2/22/21).

For an in-depth exploration of pandemic forecasts and related speculation, see Andrew Joseph and Helen Branswell’s “short-term, middle-term, and long-term future of the coronavirus” story for STAT (3/4/21). Yes, the standard forecast for the long-term future of COVID-19 is a seasonal illness that is nothing but a nuisance for most people who have been vaccinated or those previously exposed to SARS-CoV-2. But the end of this piece clarifies the meaning of this coronavirus potentially joining the ranks of influenza viruses. “While most people don’t see the flu as an existential threat, it still kills tens of thousands of people in the U.S., and hundreds of thousands around the world, every year,” the story states.

U.S. regulators are scrutinizing ingredients called quats, or quaternary ammonium compounds, in disinfectants — e.g. Lysol wipes and aerosol disinfectants — that many institutions and individuals are using widely during the pandemic to clean surfaces and hands, reports freelance science journalist Casey Crownhart for Environmental Health News (2/19/21). Quats makers say they are safe, but the compounds are now “becoming more present in the environment,” Crownhart writes, and could pollute waterways, disrupt marine food chains, and lead to antibiotic-resistant microbes. Bacteria might evolve “cross-resistance” to various antiseptics if mutations that help microbes survive quats also end up protecting them against other antiseptic products or medications, the story suggests. A University of California, Davis, microbiologist who studies how bacteria develop resistance to quats is paraphrased in the piece as stating that “the best way to respond to the problem of antibiotic resistance may be not to develop new quats…but to reconsider whether we should be using them at all, at least in some products.” Researchers now are looking into the potential for quats to cause work-related asthma and endocrine disruption, Crownhart reports. In the meantime, alternatives include the use of disinfecting products made with citric acid, lactic acid or hydrogen peroxide, according to a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, the story states (2/19/21).

In an authoritative interview by William Kearney with Janet Napolitano, the former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security now on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, she reflects on how public research universities have adapted to COVID-19. The piece then features Napolitano’s thoughts on U.S. national security’s “real risks, not perceived ones,” that is, the ones that she thinks should be foremost — pandemics, climate change, and cybersecurity. She makes a strong case for the role of federal government in leading the national response to a pandemic, and for proactive anticipation of scenarios that threaten U.S. security. “A key critique in the 9/11 Commission’s report was that we suffered from a failure of imagination. All the data were there, but we simply couldn’t imagine a complicated plot to take over aircraft and fly them into places like the World Trade Center…That’s a challenge to leaders. When I say scenario-planning or scenario-thinking, it’s the what if questions: What if the mortality rate for COVID was even higher? What if extreme weather events take out Miami…And so once you say [see] those kinds of things, you can begin reverse engineering them. How would the federal government respond?” (Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2021; published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and Arizona State University).

You might enjoy listening to videos of  Yo-Yo Ma playing his cello in a vaccine clinic as he completed the 15-minute observation period following his second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, as reported by Amanda Burke at The Berkshire Eagle (3/13/21). More videos of his playing at the site can be found at the Berkshire Community College page on Facebook.


Scientific American Content: Global

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