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Current count: 4.8 million confirmed cases worldwide (up 1.3 million compared to last week); 1.5 million in the United States (up 350,000 from last week). 320,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 (up 70,000 compared to last week); 90,000 deaths in the United States (30,000 more than last week).
More than a month has passed since President Donald Trump announced that he was suspending funding for the World Health Organization, a group that has played a leading role in coordinating the international response to the pandemic. Trump’s claim was that it had helped China cover up the initial spread of SARS-CoV-2, but over the weekend reports began to circulate that the administration was planning to restore funding for the organization. The reinstated funds are said to represent a small fraction of the former US budget, and details are still under negotiation.
Last month, we also looked at a study that suggested that SARS-CoV-2 had generated a huge number of asymptomatic infections. Unfortunately, this suggestion was based on very questionable methodology and statistics and had drawn strong criticism from the researchers. Last week, BuzzFeed obtained an internal complaint at Stanford alleging both research irregularities by the people carrying out the study and a possible conflict of interest linked to the source of funding for the work.
At the beginning of the spread of the pandemic in the United States, there were reports of a single choir practice in which a single infected person had spread the virus to many of his fellow singers. Now the CDC has reviewed the details of this event, and they are impressive. Of the other 60 people present, 52 appeared to develop SARS-CoV-2 infections (32 of those confirmed by tests). The CDC concludes that although “super-broadcaster” events like this are rare, they provide another reason why social distancing is critical.
The global pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries are accelerating the development of so many potential vaccines that it is difficult to keep up with all the efforts that begin the trials. But good news was announced this morning by a company called Moderna, which is trying to develop a vaccine that uses RNA to induce a person’s own cells to produce proteins normally produced by the virus. In a small safety trial involving 15 people, the vaccine produced an antibody response in each participant (although low doses required a booster). Many of those tested appear to have antibodies that bind to the virus in a way that prevents it from infecting new cells.
The company plans to start a phase 3 trial, with many more participants, in July.
And earlier today, an article was published suggesting that we could play a role in the changes that are taking place in the coronavirus genome as it continues to spread through the world’s population. Our cells have enzymes that chemically modify the bases of RNA, in part to defend against viruses like this. And these “RNA-editing” enzymes seem to modify the genome itself. The consequences of these changes are not yet clear.
Georgia is one of the states making the most efforts to limit the social distancing measures that most other states have used to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Unfortunately, some problems emerged in the data that Peach State used to justify its decision. It turns out that the state’s Department of Public Health had organized the graph of SARS-CoV-2 confirmed infections in descending order of cases – not by the actual date from which the data came. The latter is essential for monitoring trends in infection. According to the article, this is the most recent of a number of comically incompetent data presentation choices made by the ministry.
But it’s not just the United States where the politically powerful act somewhat indifferent to the evidence. The President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, is promoting a herbal remedy called Covid-Organics. There is absolutely no evidence that it would work and no plausible mechanism for it to act, but Rajoelina reportedly said, “It works really well.” He also hinted that much of the skepticism is due to its origin in Africa. Meanwhile, there are reports of uncontrolled outbreaks in parts of Africa.