11 Jun 2020

Latest COVID-19 science updates: facemasks, high blood pressure and a new disease in children

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 suggests face masks could prevent second wave of coronavirus

A study published on Wednesday has suggested that widespread facemask use could help prevent a second wave of coronavirus when used  in combination with social distancing.

The research used mathematical models to look at how the R value – the statistical measure of how many people one person with coronavirus might further infect – is influenced by facemask use alongside lockdown.

“Under certain conditions, when lock-down periods are implemented in combination with 100 percent facemask use, there is vastly less disease spread, secondary and tertiary waves are flattened and the epidemic is brought under control”, the researchers said in Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

They went on to include the possibility of incorrect use or ineffective facemasks, and found that even with these conditions transmission was limited enough to decrease the chance of further waves of infection.

Experts not involved in the study were split on the significance of the findings. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, scientists have disagreed whether facemasks are a worthwhile disease prevention tool.

But following new advice from the World Health Organization last week, policymakers are increasingly introducing measures to support the use of facemasks in public.

Study suggests coronavirus-linked inflammatory condition in children is a new disease

A study by scientists at Imperial College London has suggested that an extremely rare and unusual inflammatory condition in children, thought to be linked with coronavirus, is a new disease.

Previous reports had suggested that the recent phenomena observed in children over the past few months had a likeness to other rare but previously known conditions, including  Kawasaki disease.

But of 58 studied patients, only 22 percent of the children met diagnostic criteria for Kawasaki disease, the researchers said, adding that “some clinical and laboratory characteristics had important differences” from that and other known conditions.

The study, published in JAMA on Monday, noted how, for example, children with the new coronavirus-linked disease tended to be older than those with the other conditions, and tended to show more signs of heart damage and “more intense inflammation”.

Experts commenting on the findings noted how despite this new evidence that the condition is distinct, it’s still not proven to be caused by coronavirus.

Professor Adilia Warris, a paediatrician from the University of Exeter who was not involved in the study, said: “What is important is to realize is that also for other inflammatory syndromes in childhood (e.g. Kawasaki disease), the cause is not known.”

Study outlines potential link between high blood pressure and coronavirus

A study of coronavirus patients in China found that those with high blood pressure were more likely to die than those without – and that the most likely to die were those taking no medication for their high blood pressure.

The research, published on Friday in the European Heart Journal, looked at 2,877 coronavirus patients. 4.1 percent of the patients who had a history of high blood pressure, or hypertension, died from coronavirus, whereas 1.1 percent of those with no hypertension died from the disease.

If the patients with high blood pressure were not taking medication for it, they were twice as likely to die from the virus, the study said.

Experts not involved in the study were cautious about the findings due to the difficulty of separating out confounding factors such as age, or other underlying health conditions like diabetes or dementia.

But they noted how, until further research is published, blood pressure should at least be taken into consideration when treating coronavirus patients.

Last week’s update can be found here.