LIVE BLOG: R&D response to COVID-19 pandemic

30 Jun 2022 | Live Blog

The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting universities and research institutes across the world. But the same institutions are also working very hard to find out how the disease can be stopped and its effects mitigated.

Follow this live blog for the latest updates on how the crisis is impacting research and innovation, and what governments, funders, companies, universities, associations and scientists are doing to stop or cope with the pandemic.

You can read the full archive of this blog here and here.

IDAlert, a Horizon Europe project kicking off at the start of June, aims to tackle the emergence and transmission of pathogens from animals to humans, developing novel indicators, early warning systems and tools for decision-makers, and by investigating adaptation and mitigation strategies make Europe more resilient to emerging health threats.

As the planet heats up due to climate change, outbreaks of zoonotic diseases that spread from animals to humans are on the rise. Warmer temperatures, more variable rainfall, and the loss of biodiversity, influence the survival and spread of zoonotic pathogens, and the reproduction and geographic location of their vectors, such as mosquitoes or ticks.

Past and recent health crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have shown there is a need for stronger and more inclusive preparedness and responsiveness to epidemic-prone pathogens at the EU and global level. To address this, IDAlert will develop a range of decision support tools and systems to enable decision makers to react sooner.

Amongst these will be climate and health indicators for viruses circulating among wild birds and mosquitoes, and monitoring mechanisms to improve surveillance, early warning, and response systems.

IDAlert will also assess the costs, effectiveness, benefits and viability of adaptation measures and strategies to improve the climate resilience of health systems in Europe.

Finally, the project will look at socioeconomic aspects, investigating the emergence, transmission, and spread of zoonotic pathogens and how policy can help reduce their impacts.

The tools and methods developed in the project will be validated in key hotspot sites in Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, Sweden, and Bangladesh, all of which are experiencing rapid urban transformation and climate-induced disease threats.

IDAlert - Infectious Disease decision support tools and Alert systems to build climate Resilience to emerging health Threats - is a five year project involving 19 organisations from Sweden, Germany, France, Spain, Greece, The Netherlands, Italy, UK, and Bangladesh.

Spanish researchers have found that babies born to mothers who were infected with COVID-19 while pregnant show greater difficulties in relaxing and adapting their bodies when they are being held, compared to infants from non-infected mothers. This is especially the case when infection happened late in pregnancy.

In addition, infants whose mothers had COVID-19 tend to show greater difficulty in controlling head and shoulder movements, suggesting a possible COVID-19 effect on motor function.

The data were presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry held from 4 – 7 June in Budapest.

The results come from an initial evaluation of the Spanish COGESTCOV-19 project, which followed the course of pregnancy and baby development in mothers infected with COVID-19. The data relate to pregnancy and post-natal assessment at 6 weeks after birth, but the project will continue to see if there are longer-term effects. The group will monitor infant language and motor development between 18 and 42 months old.

The initial evaluation compared babies born to 21 COVID positive pregnant women and their babies, with 21 healthy controls at the Marqués de Valdecilla University Hospital in Santander, Spain.  The mothers underwent a series of tests during and after pregnancy.

The post-natal tests included the Neonatal Behavioural Assessment Scale, which measures a baby’s movement and behaviour.

One of the researchers, Águeda Castro Quintas from the University of Barcelona Network Centre for Biomedical Research in Mental Health) said, “We found that certain elements of the NBAS measurement were changed in 6-week-old infants who had been exposed to the SARS-COV-2 virus. Effectively they react slightly differently to being held or cuddled.”

The researchers note that these are preliminary result, but this is part of a project following a larger sample of 100 mothers and their babies. They have also been monitored during pregnancy, and after birth. It is also planned to compare these mothers and babies with data from another similar project, which is looking at the effect of stress and genetics on a child’s neurodevelopment.

Project leader Rosa Ayesa Arriola said, “This is the right moment to establish international collaborations that would permit us to assess long-term neurodevelopment in children born during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research in this field is vital in understanding and preventing possible neurological problems and mental health vulnerabilities in those children in the coming years.”

Long-term exposure to air pollution is linked to a greater risk of severe COVID-19, according to new research presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care in Milan, Italy, 4-6 June.

The study by German researchers found that people living in counties with higher levels of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were more likely to need to be admitted to intensive care and mechanical ventilation if they had COVID-19.

Long-term exposure to NO2 that is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned, can have harmful effects on the lungs.  This includes damage to the endothelial cells, which play a key role in oxygen transfer from inhaled air to the blood.

Although the links between air pollution and COVID-19 have previously been demonstrated by researchers in Spain, Mexico, Canada and other countries, few of these studies have focused on severity of disease or taken into account population density, underlying health conditions and other factors which affect the impact of the disease.

Susanne Koch, of the Department of Anaesthesiology & Intensive Care, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and colleagues explored the impact of long-term air pollution on the need for ICU treatment and mechanical ventilation of COVID-19 patients.

Air pollution data from 2010 to 2019 was used to calculate the long-term annual mean level of NOfor each county in Germany. The highest level was in Frankfurt and the lowest level in Suhl, a small county in Thuringia. 

The German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine registry, set up to monitor ICU capacity during the pandemic, was used to provide information on how many COVID-19 patients in each hospital needed ICU treatment and mechanical ventilation.

The study found that there was a greater need for ICU treatment and mechanical ventilation of COVID-19 patients in counties with higher long-term annual mean NOlevels.

On average, 28 ICU beds and 19 ventilators were needed for COVID-19 patients in each of the ten counties with the lowest long-term NO2 exposure, during the month studied. This compares to an average of 144 ICU beds and 102 ventilators in the ten counties with the highest long-term NO2 exposure.

While the results do not prove causation, there is a potential biological explanation for them.

ACE-2, the protein that the COVID-19 virus binds to when entering our cells, has many key roles in the body, including helping down-regulate the activities of angiotensin II, a protein which increases inflammation. 

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus binds to ACE-2, however, these brakes are removed.  Air pollution also releases the brakes and so the combination of COVID-19 and long-term air pollution exposure could lead to more severe inflammation and more severe COVID-19.

“Long-term exposure to NOlong before the pandemic may have made people more vulnerable to more severe COVID-19 disease,” Koch said. “Exposure to ambient air pollution can contribute a range of other conditions, including heart attacks, strokes, asthma and lung cancer and will continue to harm health long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.”

Researchers from the Zoonosis Science Centre at Uppsala University have identified a new coronavirus in a study of approximately 260 bank voles caught around Grimsö in Örebro County. The data show the virus is well established in Sweden’s red-backed voles.

“Between 2015 and 2017, we consistently found what we have called the ‘Grimsö Virus’ in 3.4% of these voles, which would suggest that the virus is widespread and common in Sweden’s bank voles,” said Åke Lundkvist, professor in virology and head of the Zoonosis Science Centre.

Researchers at the centre map zoonotic viruses to increase the understanding of the interaction between viruses and host animals. Unlike the SARS-CoV and MERS coronaviruses that originate in bats, some seasonal coronaviruses appear to have spread to humans from rodents like rats, mice and voles.

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of infectious diseases that can be linked to small mammals like rodents, and research around the ecology of these host animals is an essential component in the work to prevent future outbreaks.

The bank vole (Myodes glareolus) is one of Europe’s most common rodents. Previous studies have found several coronaviruses circulating amongst these animals in countries including the UK, Poland, France and Germany.

“We still do not know what potential threats the Grimsö Virus may pose to public health. However, based on our observations and previous coronaviruses identified among bank voles, there is good reason to continue monitoring the coronavirus amongst wild rodents,” said Lundkvist

One of the first studies to document the impact of COVID-19 on already existing viruses in Australia has shown the pandemic was responsible for creating a huge change in the incidence and genetics of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in the country.

RSV is a common virus that generally causes mild, cold like symptoms but the infection can be serious for infants and older adults.

The researchers say the pandemic disrupted the seasonal pattern of RSV, which is one of the regular ‘winter viruses’. For the first time on record, in 2020 there was no winter RSV epidemic, which is attributed to COVID-19 travel restrictions and infection control measures.

However, RSV was one of the first of the key respiratory pathogens to re-emerge after COVID-19.

The researchers genetically sequenced major outbreaks of RSV occurring out of season over the summer of 2020-21 on both sides of the country. These outbreaks coincided with the easing of COVID-19 control measures.

They found there had been a major collapse in RSV strains known before COVID-19, and the emergence of new RSV strains. These new strains dominated each outbreak in Western Australia, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

The researchers then tracked the seeding of viruses from each outbreak into Victoria, which led to another major RSV outbreak.

“Our genetic studies showed that most of the previous RSV strains had gone ‘extinct’ and that for each outbreak only a single genetic lineage had survived all the lockdowns,” said lead researcher John-Sebastian Eden, senior research fellow at the University of Sydney Institute for Infectious Diseases.

The study raises important questions as to how rapid spread and evolution of RSV could inform the re-emergence of other viruses including influenza.

“The constellation of flu strains circulating pre and post-COVID-19 has also changed a lot, leading to challenges in how we choose the composition and timing of our annual vaccines. For example, the flu season in Australia has kicked off much earlier than in previous years.” said Eden.

There is currently no approved RSV vaccine, but it is a major focus for vaccine and therapeutic development.

“We need to be vigilant – some viruses may have all but disappeared, but will likely rebound in the near future, possibly at unusual times and with stronger impact,” Eden said. “We need to be prepared for large outbreaks of RSV outside of normal seasonal periods.”

Before COVID-19, two major RSV subtypes, A and B, co-circulated at similar levels.

During late 2020 to early 2021 during the outbreak periods, this changed dramatically. The RSV-A subtype was found to be the dominant strain – making up more than 95% of cases in all the states. The RSV-B had all but disappeared.

A new computer-aided diagnostic tool could help overcome some of the challenges of monitoring lung health following infection with COVID-19.

In common with other respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause lasting harm to the lungs. However, it is hard to visualise this damage because conventional chest scans do not reliably detect signs of lung scarring and other pulmonary abnormalities. That is making it difficult to track the health and recovery of people with persistent breathing problems and other post-COVID complications.

The new method developed by researchers in China and at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia, overlays artificial intelligence algorithms on top of standard chest imaging data to reveal otherwise indiscernible visual features indicative of lung dysfunction.

As a result, radiologists can identify and analyse novel sub-visual lung lesions,” said computer scientist and computational biologist Xin Gao. “Analysis of these lesions could then help explain patients’ respiratory symptoms,” allowing for better disease management and treatment, he said.

The method first eliminates any anatomical features not associated with the lung parenchyma; the tissues involved in gas exchange that are the main sites of COVID-19–induced damage. That means removing airways and blood vessels, and then enhancing the pictures of what is left behind to expose lesions that might be missed.

The researchers trained and validated their algorithms using computed tomography (CT) chest scans from thousands of people hospitalised with COVID-19 in China.

Gao and colleagues demonstrated the tool could reveal signs of pulmonary fibrosis in people with Long COVID, thus helping to account for shortness of breath, coughing and other lung problems. He says this diagnosis would be impossible with standard CT image analytics.

Football matches that went ahead during the second COVID-19 wave in Germany were linked to local increases in the number of infections, despite the outdoor setting, reduced stadium occupancy and social distancing, a new study suggests.

The researchers found that local COVID-19 incidence on match days played a key role in subsequent infection levels.

Kai Fischer of the University of Düsseldorf compared counties in Germany where football matches took place with counties without matches between August and November 2020, and then looked at how infection rates evolved over time in these counties.

He found that, on average, just one additional football match in a county led to 0.34 - 0.71 additional cases per 100,000 people three weeks later. This might not sound like much, but when extrapolated to the 7-day incidence per 100,000 people, it is an increase of approximately 3-7% for just one match.

During this period, the authorities restricted the number of people who could attend matches, capping stadium occupancy levels at approximately 20%. Harsher occupancy restrictions were imposed when local weekly case numbers exceeded 35 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Hygiene and social distancing rules also varied, with top league matches imposing stricter regulations.

Infection levels following a match were strongly linked to the local incidence of COVID-19 on the day of the match. In fact, there were very few infections after matches when the local weekly incidence was under 25 per 100,000 people.

The study used smartphone data to show that large increases in mobility occurred on match days, leading to more human interaction, and proposes that this is a possible underlying mechanism for the phenomenon.

Researchers at the University of Alicante who are studying the global spread of the COVID-19 epidemic have published new data showing the SARS-CoV-2 virus entered the US one month earlier than the official data.

Their analysis, conducted with the University of Pennsylvania, shows that the virus likely entered through California on 28 December 2019. That is 16 days before the officially recognised entry date set by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and 3 days before the first outbreak was reported by authorities in Wuhan, China.

In addition, the study provides evidence that SARS-CoV-2 on average entered each US state a month earlier than previously reflected in official data.

The data were obtained using the Retrospective Methodology to Estimate Daily Infections from Deaths methodology, which the researchers say provides more accurate estimates of the initial cases of COVID-19 in the US and has the capacity to be extrapolated to other countries to retrospectively follow the progress of the pandemic.

Between November 2020 and May 2021, adherence to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions decreased in Italy, with the fastest decreases taking place during times of the most stringent restrictions, according to a new study.

Pandemic fatigue, characterised as lower motivation to adhere to social distancing measures and adopt health protective behaviours, is a significant concern for policymakers and health officials.

From November 2020 to May 2021 in Italy, tiered restrictions were adopted to reduce the spread of COVID-19, with regions declared red, orange, yellow or white depending on the level of infection. Restrictions ranged from a night time curfew in the yellow tier to general stay-at-home mandates in the red tier.

In the new study, the researchers used large scale mobility data from Facebook and Google captured in all 20 Italian provinces to analyse the timing of pandemic fatigue. Facebook reports the change in a user’s number of movements over time, while Google data estimates the change in time spent at home.

People’s relative change in movements increased an average of 0.08% per day and time spent outside the home increased by an average 0.04% per day, leading to a more than 15% increase in relative mobility over the seven-month study period.

During times of red tier restrictions, individual mobility increased an additional 0.16% per day and time spent outside the home increased an additional 0.04% when compared to the average. This means for every 2 week period spent in the red tier, there was an additional average 3% increase in relative mobility.

The authors conclude that changes in adherence to pandemic restrictions are faster during periods characterised by the strictest levels of restrictions. Given that milder tiers have been proven to be effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, the researchers suggest policymakers should consider the interplay between the efficacy of restrictions and their sustainability over time.

One of the first studies to document the impact of COVID-19 on already existing viruses in Australia has shown the pandemic was responsible for creating a huge change in the incidence and genetics of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in the country.

RSV is a common virus that generally causes mild, cold like symptoms but the infection can be serious for infants and older adults.

The researchers say the pandemic disrupted the seasonal pattern of RSV, which is one of the regular ‘winter viruses’. For the first time on record, in 2020 there was no winter RSV epidemic, which is attributed to COVID-19 travel restrictions and infection control measures.

However, RSV was one of the first of the key respiratory pathogens to re-emerge after COVID-19.

The researchers genetically sequenced major outbreaks of RSV occurring out of season over the summer of 2020-21 on both sides of the country. These outbreaks coincided with the easing of COVID-19 control measures.

They found there had been a major collapse in RSV strains known before COVID-19, and the emergence of new RSV strains. These new strains dominated each outbreak in Western Australia, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

The researchers then tracked the seeding of viruses from each outbreak into Victoria, which led to another major RSV outbreak.

“Our genetic studies showed that most of the previous RSV strains had gone ‘extinct’ and that for each outbreak only a single genetic lineage had survived all the lockdowns,” said lead researcher John-Sebastian Eden, senior research fellow at the University of Sydney Institute for Infectious Diseases.

The study raises important questions as to how rapid spread and evolution of RSV could inform the re-emergence of other viruses including influenza.

“The constellation of flu strains circulating pre and post-COVID-19 has also changed a lot, leading to challenges in how we choose the composition and timing of our annual vaccines. For example, the flu season in Australia has kicked off much earlier than in previous years.” said Eden.

There is currently no approved RSV vaccine, but it is a major focus for vaccine and therapeutic development.

“We need to be vigilant – some viruses may have all but disappeared, but will likely rebound in the near future, possibly at unusual times and with stronger impact,” Eden said. “We need to be prepared for large outbreaks of RSV outside of normal seasonal periods.”

Before COVID-19, two major RSV subtypes, A and B, co-circulated at similar levels.

During late 2020 to early 2021 during the outbreak periods, this changed dramatically. The RSV-A subtype was found to be the dominant strain – making up more than 95% of cases in all the states. The RSV-B had all but disappeared.

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