15 Apr 2020

Latest COVID-19 science updates: social distancing, neurological impacts, and cats

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, scientists are rushing to carry out and publish research which will help us understand how the virus works, and how the disease it causes can be treated.

Each week, Channel 4 News will provide a summary of key research papers, studies or developments from the world of COVID-19 science.

Study uses model to suggest social distancing should be in place for years to come  (published 14/04/20)

This week researchers from Harvard University published findings from a mathematical model which suggests that some social distancing measures may be needed right up to the point when an effective vaccine for COVID-19  is available.

The study suggests this could go on until 2022. This is largely because of the uncertainty around how long immunity will last, even in those who have already had the virus and recovered, the researchers said.

The model used assumptions about SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, on seasonality, immunity, and cross-immunity by using existing data from other known coronaviruses.

The study authors reiterated clearly that to move beyond assumptions on these crucial factors, wide scale antibody testing is urgently needed. This is especially important to determine the extent to which immunity to the virus occurs following infection recovery, and how long any immunity lasts.

Experts who were not authors on the study praised its methodology and that it looked years ahead into the pandemic, rather than weeks or months. But some were cautious about the study conclusions.

Professor Gordon Dougan from the Department of Medicine at University of Cambridge said: “I am not sure comparing with other coronaviruses is helpful as SARS-Cov19 [another coronavirus] is much more pathogenic and invasive. However, overall there is little to compare SARS-Cov2 with.”

Another expert who was not an author on the study Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at University of Edinburgh, noted that the research did not model specific social interventions which may be effective later on in the pandemic.

These include “segmenting”, where interventions target specific areas or subsets of the population, and “shielding”, where interventions are specifically designed to protect those most vulnerable to the virus.

Study suggests Wuhan COVID-19 patients have had neurological impact from virus (published 10/04/20)

A study published in JAMA Neurology last week suggested that COVID-19 may be linked with neurological symptoms as well as the respiratory problems widely seen.

Out of 214 studied patients that were treated in Wuhan in January and February, the researchers found that 36.4 percent had neurological symptoms including strokes, impaired consciousness and muscle injury. This was more common at 45.5 percent in patients with severe infection.

Experts who were not authors on the study urged caution, however. They acknowledged that neurological symptoms could be caused by the virus in a small number of cases, but noted that many of the studied patients had underlying conditions.

They said that there are a number of other factors in the patients, such as obesity and diabetes, for example, which could account for the findings.

The study should be cause for further research, they added, but should not distract from the primary clinical focus on respiratory problems caused by COVID-19.

Study finds that cats are more susceptible than dogs to coronavirus (published 08/04/20)

A study published in the journal Science last week has found that cats and ferrets are some of the pets most susceptible to carrying the coronavirus – whereas dogs are much more resistant. Pigs, chickens, and ducks were not infected at all in the study.

The research found that some cats, when infected with very high doses of the virus, could infect others in neighbouring cages – suggesting some level of airborne transmission.

Experts commenting on the research highlighted that these were experimental findings, however, and that there is still no evidence of real world pets passing the virus onto their owners, or vice versa.

The research follows reports last week of a tiger at Bronx Zoo in New York catching the virus.

With other coronaviruses such as SARS, there has been evidence of some pets catching the virus but little to show they were active in spreading it

Last week’s update can be found here: https://www.channel4.com/news/latest-covid-19-research-blood-plasma-therapy-face-masks-and-the-uks-critically-ill-patients