The Daily Dose: Coronavirus’ steady march frays nerves as countries reach for solutions

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As the coronavirus continues its march across the globe, governments are struggling to devise acceptable strategies to mitigate the spread within their countries. It hasn’t been easy and sometimes, adopting the draconian measures implemented in China does not fit with their values. According to the Associated Press, “As growing parts of Europe and the Middle East saw infections and a first case was found in South America, air routes were halted and border control toughened. But for an illness transmitted so easily, with its tentacles reaching into so many parts of the world, leaders puzzled over how to keep the virus from proliferating seemed willing to try anything to keep their people — and economies — safe.” Japan has decided to close schools and Saudi Arabia has temporarily halted religious visits to Mecca and Medina. Meanwhile, Denmark and Estonia have reported their first cases and Italy has reported its 14th death. South Korea has reported 505 new cases.

U.S. President Donald Trump held a chaotic press conference last night in which he tried to deliver a steady and calming message about the coronavirus (and failed) and announced the appointment of Vice President Mike Pence as the new coronavirus “czar” in charge of combating the disease domestically. Pence will outrank the heads of the Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, and National Institute of Health. It should be recalled that then-Indiana governor Pence’s policies resulted in an outbreak of HIV, so his appointment is anything but reassuring. Making matters worse, HHS head, Alex Azar II, refused to guarantee that a coronavirus vaccine would be affordable for most of the public. Less than an hour after the press conference, U.S. authorities announced the confirmation of the first untraceable infection with no links to China or travel. Community-transmission of SARS-nCoV-2 is considered a game-changer in a country’s infection trajectory.

There’s been at least one promising point in the current coronavirus news cycle. Gilead Sciences has expanded the scope of its vaccine trials. As per The New York Times, “Two new clinical trials of remdesivir are to begin in March, involving “approximately 1,000 patients at medical centers primarily across Asian countries, as well as other countries globally with high numbers of diagnosed cases,” Gilead said in a statement. It did not specify the countries where the trials will take place.” Unfortunately, the most optimistic timetable has the drug coming to market in at least a year’s time.

Researchers and science organizations have embraced technology in the face of the fast-moving COVID-19 outbreak. For example, a group of primatologists created a Slack workspace called the Wu-han Clan in order to discuss how to create a primate model for coronavirus infection. According to Science, “The Wu-han Clan is just one example of how the COVID-19 outbreak is transforming how scientists communicate about fast-moving health crises. A torrent of data is being released daily by preprint servers that didn’t even exist a decade ago, then dissected on platforms such as Slack and Twitter, and in the media, before formal peer review begins. Journal staffers are working overtime to get manuscripts reviewed, edited, and published at record speeds. The venerable New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) posted one COVID-19 paper within 48 hours of submission. Viral genomes posted on a platform named GISAID, more than 200 so far, are analyzed instantaneously by a phalanx of evolutionary biologists who share their phylogenetic trees in preprints and on social media.” I suppose they should be congratulated for shifting operations away from typewriters.

Scientists are still unable to confirm the source of SARS-CoV-2. While there have been an abundance of theories (including way too many politically-inspired conspiracy theories), there’s still tons of uncertainty going around. As per Nature, “Scientists are racing to identify the source of the coronavirus that is causing havoc around the world. Three weeks ago, Chinese scientists suggested, on the basis of genetic analyses, that the scaly, ant-eating pangolin was the prime suspect. But scientists have now examined those data — along with three other pangolin coronavirus genome studies released last week — and say that although the animal is still a contender, the mystery is far from solved.” Identifying the source of an outbreak is one of the most basic epidemiological steps necessary to properly treat an epidemic, so that isn’t great news.

Finally, if you’ve ever ridden New York City subways (or viewed subway footage on YouTube), you’re aware that very healthy-looking rats are part and parcel to the experience. Now, a group of researchers have attempted to determine what biological and evolutionary changes have allowed them to thrive in urban environments. They started by scanning the rats’ genetic make-up. “The scan produced a list of dozens of genes that harboured the signature of a selective sweep in the rats. The genes include some associated with diet, behaviour and mobility — potentially reflecting the challenges, and delights, of life in the Big Apple. While it’s tempting to speculate that CYP2D1, a gene the team identified that may be important for detoxifying plant compounds, could help the city rats to enjoy kale salads, scientists can’t yet say how these genomic hallmarks influence the animals’ biology.” The report failed to mention New Yorker rats and their affinity for slices of pizza.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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