2 Apr 2020

The latest Covid-19 science developments

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.

Nature paper looking at nine patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms (published 01/04/2020)

A study published in the journal Nature was the first major research looking at patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms.

It found that in a total of nine mild-symptom cases, there was a high amount of viral replication in the nose and throat during the first seven days of infection, before the virus passed into the blood.

Rosalind Smyth, Director and Professor of Child Health at UCL Great Ormond St Institute of Child Health, who is not an author of the study, commented: “This helps to explain why the virus is so infectious; it can be transmitted by droplets from the upper respiratory tract, before people may be aware that they have an infection. The high replication in the upper respiratory tract may also explain the profound loss of taste and smell people have been reporting, even in those with few other symptoms.”

A link to the study can be found here.


Nature papers on SARS-CoV-2 structure (published 30/03/2020)

This week two papers were published in the journal Nature which characterised in detail the structure of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes the disease COVID-19.

The papers, one from China and the other from the US, reveal a spike-like protein structure on the outside of the virus, the specific properties of which make it very good at binding to human receptors. This structure is thought to account for why COVID-19 is so much more infectious than SARS, which it is otherwise structurally similar to. It is simply better at clinging on to human cells.

Understanding the structure of the virus and the mechanism of its binding is important for understanding how human antibodies neutralise the virus in an immunity response, and also how to develop drugs which mimic these actions and treat the disease.

Prof Ian Jones, Professor of Virology at University of Reading, who was not an author of the study, commented:

“These are molecular snapshots of the virus making its first contact with the cell, opening the door to infection if you like. It’s the stage at which a vaccine would work, and the data will be useful to fine-tune the vaccines in current development. What’s a bit more sobering is that the speed at which this type of molecular analysis is done far outstrips the pace at which vaccine manufacture can take place, highlighting the urgent need for faster vaccine solutions in the future.”

Links to the studies can be found here and here.


ICNARC report on first 775 patients in critical care (published 27/03/2020)

Regular audits of COVID-19 patients admitted to  intensive care units (ICU) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are being carried out by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC).

The most recent looked at the first 775 COVID-19 patients admitted to ICU and found the following:

Mortality: Of the 775 patients, 79 patients died (10.2%), 86 patients were discharged alive from critical care (11.1%)and 609 patients were last reported as still being in critical care.

Demographics: The median age of patients was 61. Of the 775, 546 were male (70.5%), and 228 were female (29.5%).

BMI: There has been some speculation in the media that weight, or specifically Body Mass Index (BMI), is playing a key role in determining a person’s risk of developing severe COVID-19. The ICNARC report found that of the 775 patients, 26.6% had a BMI of 18.5-25 (the NHS considers this healthy), 34.4% had a BMI of 25-30 (overweight), 31.0% had a BMI of 30-40 (obese) and 6.6% were over 40 (obese). Commenting on these findings, Duncan Young, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine at the University of Oxford, said: “The BMI distribution of the patients in ICU with COVID-19 matches the population, so it is not likely that obesity is linked to severe COVID-19 infection requiring an ICU admission.”

Previous health: 90.6% of the 775 patients were able to live without assistance in daily activities prior to admission.

A link to the report can be found here.