Covid-19 Survivors Have a Low Risk of Reinfection, Study Suggests

Illustration for article titled Covid-19 Survivors Have a Low Risk of Reinfection, Study Suggests

Photo: Simon Dawson (Getty Images)

New government-funded research this week should offer some comfort to people who have survived covid-19. It suggests they have a low risk of reinfection from the coronavirus, at least around three months later.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute teamed up with commercial testing labs and two healthcare data collection companies for this study, published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

They analyzed de-identified data from more than 3 million Americans who had gotten a commercial antibody test for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19, sometime between January to August 2020. Antibody tests, while not perfect, indicate whether someone has had a prior recent infection. These people were divided into those who had antibodies and those who didn’t, based on testing. Then the researchers looked at how many people in both groups later got a PCR test for covid-19, which is meant to diagnose an active infection.


About 10% of people in each group went on to get a PCR test. More people with antibodies tested positive for the virus within the first 30 days after their antibody test than those without antibodies. But that’s not surprising, since detectable traces of the virus can remain in the body for months, even after symptoms have passed and the person is no longer infectious. So it’s likely these positive PCR results were usually picking up the first infection. When the researchers looked specifically at the positive test rate after the first month and especially more than 90 days later—enough time for a positive PCR test to likely indicate a true reinfection—the results were encouragingly different.

After three months or longer, only 0.3% of people with an earlier positive antibody test tested positive for the coronavirus again, compared to 3% of those with a negative antibody test. In other words, having a past infection was linked to a much lower risk of infection three or more months later.

“People who have recovered from covid-19 should be reassured that being antibody-positive is associated with some protection against a new infection,” study author Douglas Lowy, the principal deputy director of the NCI, said in an email.


The findings do come with their limitations, though. For one, they can’t tell us exactly how much protection a past infection will provide against reinfection, or how long it’s expected to last (though other research has suggested that it may be years). Another factor this study can’t account for is the recent emergence of coronavirus variants. Some—like the one first identified in South Africa last year—are thought to raise the risk of reinfection, since they may be able to partly evade the immune response created by an earlier infection or vaccination.

Still, there’s no research showing that any currently spreading variants can completely evade someone’s natural or vaccine-provided immunity. Our immune system has plenty of weapons against a familiar germ, and it’s likely that most reinfections will turn out to be milder than the first time.


Even before these new variants were around, though, there had been documented cases of reinfection, including cases where symptoms were worse the second go-around. And the new study’s findings still suggest that reinfection does happen, if rarely. So no one should assume they’re impervious to covid-19 just because they survived an earlier infection with no problem. Ultimately, the best way to keep everyone safe from covid-19 is to vaccinate as many people as possible, including those who have already had the viral illness, according to Lowy. It’s a remedy that involves a lot less risk than getting a natural infection.


“People who have recovered from covid-19 should still plan to be vaccinated when they have the opportunity,” he said.

The NCI plans to continue funding research that will track the prevalence of reinfection in the general public, along with studies that will look at how our immune response to the virus may change over time and against new variants.


A Woman’s Tragic Covid-19 Death Traced to Tainted Donated Lungs, Report Finds

Illustration for article titled A Woman's Tragic Covid-19 Death Traced to Tainted Donated Lungs, Report Finds

Photo: Christopher Furlong/ (Getty Images)

Doctors say that a Michigan woman’s untimely death last fall was caused by covid-19 unknowingly spread through a double lung transplant. It’s likely the first clear case of covid-19 linked to transplantation. Another doctor contracted the viral illness through the procedure, but survived.

The woman’s tragic case was detailed in a report published earlier this month by doctors at the University of Michigan Medical School, in the American Journal of Transplantation. According to the report, the woman needed the transplant because of her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Her donor was a woman who had recently died of severe brain injury from a car accident. Standard screening, including a nasal and throat swab test for the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) on the donor and recipient, turned up nothing unusual and the procedure appeared to go off without a hitch.

Three days following the transplant, however, the recipient spiked a fever and began to have trouble breathing. A nasal swab test initially showed no traces of the coronavirus, but she obviously had pneumonia and a later direct test of her lungs came back positive for the virus. Over the next two months, the woman’s condition only worsened, and she developed septic shock. Though she was treated with antivirals, convalescent plasma, and ECMO (a last resort medical device that takes over for the heart and lungs), the woman succumbed to her illness 61 days after her transplant.


The donor had no history indicating recent exposure to the coronavirus or symptoms of covid-19 prior to her death, along with a negative nasal swab test. But doctors had held onto a fluid sample collected from her lungs and when they tested it after the recipient became sick, it came back positive. Genetic sequencing of the virus found in both the donor and recipient showed they were nearly identical, effectively proving the recipient’s infection came from the tainted lungs. A third person—one of the woman’s surgeons who handled the lungs—became sick and tested positive for the virus soon after the procedure, and this infection was also traced back to the donated lungs. The surgeon recovered, however, and no other member of the transplant team was affected.

There have been other suspected cases of covid-19 spread through transplantation, but this is thought to be the first known case to demonstrate transmission by using genetic sequencing. Despite the tragedy of this death, however, it’s likely still an incredibly rare risk. This same month, scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked into eight suspected cases of covid-19 linked to organ donation documented between March to May 2020. They ultimately concluded that the most likely source of transmission in these cases “was community or healthcare exposure, not the organ donor.”

Rare as it might be, the Michigan doctors do think more can be done to ensure the safety of organ recipients and their doctors during this time, particularly when lungs are being transplanted.

“Transplant centers and organ procurement organizations should perform SARS‐CoV‐2 testing of lower respiratory tract specimens from potential lung donors, and consider enhanced personal protective equipment for health care workers involved in lung procurement and transplantation,” they wrote.


How to Improve Your Chances of Scheduling a COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment

Illustration for article titled How to Improve Your Chances of Scheduling a COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment

Photo: James Andrews1 (Shutterstock)

When not one, but two safe and highly efficacious vaccines received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in December 2020—less than a year after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States— it almost seemed too good to be true. (Which is not to imply that corners were cut in the research or trials; everything happened with unprecedented cooperation and speed, but the process wasn’t rushed.)

After months of hearing that aspects of our pre-pandemic lives could return “once there’s an effective vaccine widely available,” learning an effective vaccine existed felt like a huge milestone. We were—at least in theory—one step closer to normal.


The rollout began with healthcare workers and those living in long-term care facilities, where the appointments were made internally. But once it got to the point where “regular” people—like older adults and essential workers—had to start making appointments for themselves, the problems began immediately and have continued ever since.

For many, even those in at-risk groups, the limited supply of the vaccine, coupled with the confusing process of scheduling an appointment to obtain it, has made actually getting immunized seem impossible. Here are some strategies to help you prepare for and maybe even improve your chances of getting a COVID-19 vaccine appointment online.

There’s a lot here, so we’e broken it down into sections:

Challenges of making a COVID-19 vaccine appointment online

How to prepare to book an appointment online

Tips for the actual booking process

Strategies to avoid

The challenges of making a COVID vaccine appointment online

Technically, in most cases, it’s “possible” to make an appointment by phone, but more often than not, that means waiting on hold for hours only to find out there are no appointments available. That leaves the option of attempting to book online. It’s easy to dismiss older adults as not having the tech skills necessary to navigate these sites, but really, between all the glitches, crashes and site outages, it’s a challenge for anybody.


“You have to be computer-savvy and be able to take time to work to get an appointment,” says Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor in pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine, and the former Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Public Health Information Dissemination.

Not everyone has the privilege of being able to spend hours at a time scouring pharmacy sites and refreshing health departments’ scheduling system—including essential workers, like grocery store, pharmacy, or food service employees.


“Groups like essential workers who are at higher risk of COVID-19 may not have time to get online to get an appointment for vaccine,” Rasmussen tells Lifehacker. “That means that some people who need to be protected against COVID-19 aren’t able to get the vaccine.”

Given the time commitment and effort required to make an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine, here are some strategies that might help, whether you are booking one for yourself or someone else.


Before you attempt to book an appointment

It may seem like all you’d have to do to book an appointment for a COVID vaccine would be to fill out a few quick fields on a webform, submit it with a few clicks, and presto: appointment! If only. In most cases, it involves some prep work before you even get started.


Figure out if/when you’re eligible

If you’re making an appointment for an older relative, chances are they’re eligible—but double check on their state’s website to confirm. If you’re younger, and making an appointment for yourself, it’s all about paying attention. If you’re under the age of 65, your chance to get vaccinated will likely either come when appointments are open to adults in the general public, or if you have certain preexisting conditions.


If you think you might have a preexisting condition, check your state’s eligibility list (they vary) to see if your ailment(s) qualify. If it looks like they do, the next step is seeing what you’ll be required to produce at the appointment as proof of the health conditions—typically a letter from your doctor or lab results indicating your comorbidities. You won’t need the documentation to make your booking, but it’s good to ensure that you’ll have access to it when your appointment rolls around.

Then, pay attention! If you’re not in the habit of watching, reading or listening to your local news, now’s the time to start. Every state (and county) is different, so sign up for email and/or text alerts with news of which prioritization group is currently eligible. Set a Google News alert for vaccine news in your area.


Locate and make note of your state’s booking rules and procedures

But because every state (and in some cases, local) health department can make up its own rules, you should probably find out what they are. This resource, from the Wall Street Journal, provides instructions for each state.


Make a list of all the places where you can make an appointment

You may think there is one central location for making all the COVID-19 vaccine appointments in your area. That would certainly make sense, but it’s not necessarily true. And while having multiple sites for booking appointments can get confusing, that’s actually a “good” thing if you’re tech-savvy, because it gives you more places to try.


As you’re preparing to make an appointment, make a list of all the different systems you’re potentially able to book through. There is usually a statewide site, but certain cities, counties, or hospital systems may have separate booking sites of their own. Don’t assume that one statewide website is your only option—it’s probably not. Open a Google doc for all your prep work, and paste all the potential booking links there.

You may need to register first

In some cases, you may have to register online before you can make an appointment. (Other states won’t allow you to go near any forms until you officially qualify.) But if, for example, your parent registered with the state, they may assume that they have done everything they can do to secure an appointment—when in fact they could also register with the county’s department of health, a local hospital, or the Department of Veterans Affairs, if applicable. Also, keep track of all your login information for each site.


Don’t forget about pharmacies and grocery stores

If your vaccination strategy involves attempting to get one at a pharmacy or grocery chain like CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Walmart, or Publix, those sites may require you to register and open an account with them in order to book an appointment. You can always delete it if you don’t end up getting vaccinated there, or after receiving both doses. The key in all of this is to give yourself as many options as possible.


Make a list of all your important information

Using the same Google doc where you’re stockpiling the links to different booking sites, make a list of all the relevant information you might need while filling a booking form. If you’ve registered with any of the booking sites ahead of time, make sure to have those usernames and passwords listed on your doc for easy access.


While you probably have no problem recalling your own basic personal info, if you’re making the booking for someone else, you might not know every detail offhand. Have the following typed out and at the ready:

  • Full name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Email
  • Date of birth
  • County of residence
  • Health insurance plan, along with the member and group ID
  • The name, address and phone number of the person’s primary care physician (this may not be required, but in the event that it is, have it ready)


Given how quickly the slots go once they’re available, anything you can do to shave even a few second off your booking time—like copying and pasting the information into the form instead of typing it manually—can be helpful.

Call to find out when booking starts

In situations where there are thousands of people suddenly eligible for the vaccine on the same day—as was the case in New York last weekend, when people with preexisting conditions could first make an appointment—it’s best to go in with as much information as possible.


Sometimes, news stories or press releases from the health department will indicate a time that online booking starts. Other times, they don’t. If you don’t have a confirmed start time, make a quick phone call to the organization behind that booking site and get one.


The actual booking process

Whether you want to make sure you or a loved one are first in the virtual line when a new block of appointments opens up, or you’re on your 328th attempt to book whatever you can get, here are some things that could improve your chances of getting one of the coveted slots.


Make sure your computer is ready to roll

Let’s say your computer has been working perfectly for weeks. No problems at all. It will somehow be able to sense that you’re doing something important and time sensitive, and will decide that the minute you start registering for an appointment is the ideal time to restart and update. Don’t even give it that option—get that part over with the day before. Also make sure you have a stable internet connection.


The more devices, the better

If you happen to have a tablet, second computer, or another person around who can help, make it an all-hands-on-deck situation. Just be sure to coordinate with each other in case someone does manage to book something.


And speaking of devices, if you’re not using your phone for booking purposes, you can always call one of the booking hotlines and sit on hold while trying to find an appointment online. Reportedly, some people have had luck making appointments on the phone, so it’s not a bad idea to have that the hold music on speakerphone in the background. (Ideally, it’ll be some calming smooth jazz.)

Start checking the sites

You may want to keep multiple tabs or even browsers open for this part, so you can try your hand at getting an appointment through different sites at the same time. Of course, that does not mean you should book an appointment on more than one site—it’s all about increasing your odds.


There’s a good chance the sites will crash, take forever to load, be missing entire sections, and time out while you’re filling out a form. Keep tabs on your tabs and refresh as needed.

Look to the future

Some places only post their vaccine appointment slots a few days in advance. Others go up months in advance. Of course you want that shot in your arm ASAP, but instead of trying to get one tomorrow, look a week or two down the line—you may have a better chance of finding available appointments.


Another option that might work is clicking directly on a particular date on a booking calendar (if the site has an option like that), instead of scrolling through each day at a time until you find an open slot. So, for example, if you were trying to make an appointment today, don’t start by looking for openings tomorrow and then clicking through day-by-day until you see something. Jump right to March 4th (or any random date when appointments are available) and go from there.

Only fill out the required fields on the booking form

If you get lucky enough to make it to the page where you enter your information to make an appointment, only fill in the required information. This will all be located in your handy doc, but if some fields are optional—like entering the name and address of your primary care physician—skip them. It’s not uncommon for slots to disappear after you’ve gotten to the point of filling out the booking form, so get through it ASAP and with the minimum information required.


Be cautious about where you’re clicking

In the mad dash to attempt to book vaccine appointments, it can be easy to be a little lax when it comes to internet safety. For example, only click on links to official booking sites—like a health department, pharmacy or hospital system—even if a friend sends you something else and swears it works.


And while you probably already do this, double check to make sure that there’s a little lock just left of the web address in your browser, so you know the data you enter is encrypted.

Remember: The vaccines are free

Although you’ll likely be asked for your health insurance information, the COVID vaccine itself is free—even if you are uninsured or underinsured. So if any booking site asks for your credit card or any other payment information, delete anything you’ve already entered on the page and close the tab. If you do happen to get a bill for your vaccine, here’s what you can do to deal with that.


Use crowdsourced vaccine appointment finders

Some cities and states have volunteer-led crowdsourced sites that provide real-time information on where appointments are available in a given area. Here is a helpful list of those sites, compiled by The Verge:

  • An NYC site called TurboVax pulls “the latest appointments from 43 city and state-run vaccine sites in the NYC area” and puts them on Twitter. Followers who set their Twitter notifications for @turbovax can quickly find out about newly opened appointment slots.
  • Another called NYC Vaccine List uses a combination of scripts and checks by volunteers to scour various sites for openings.
  • In California, VaccinateCA checks pharmacies and hospitals for information about open appointments.
  • Vaccinate NJ also uses volunteers to try to help state residents find vaccine opportunities.
  • Covid 19 Vaccine TX is a crowdsourced resource for registering with local counties and finding locations where vaccines may be available.
  • The MA Covid Vaccine Appointments site offers lists of and links to sites with available appointments.
  • A volunteer group in the state of Washington has launched the WA Covid Vaccine Finder as an aggregation resource for vaccination appointments.


Use a tool to detect changes in websites

You may also want to try using a service that will monitor websites of your choosing and alert you when changes are made—in this case, when a vaccine appointment booking site or pharmacy updates their availability. Two options are and Visualping, each of which has its own features and fee structures—including limited free options.


Check Twitter

In a situation like this past Sunday morning, when thousands of New Yorkers were all vying for a very limited number of appointments at the same time, Twitter can be an extremely useful tool. People will often post screenshots of issues they’re having with different booking sites—which doesn’t necessarily help you directly, but at least confirms that you’re not the only one having that problem.


But what is most useful are real-time tips people post for various sites, like what to enter to get around a particular glitch, or an unpublished link that somehow bypasses the logjam of people in virtual waiting rooms and takes you directly to the booking. If someone is lucky enough to score an appointment and did something slightly different to be able to get through this one time, they may be generous enough to let others know about it. This is where the search function and “Latest” section of your Twitter feed will come in handy.


Look for patterns in availability

In some cases, different booking sites—including pharmacies— will be on some type of schedule, adding their new appointments at the same time every day. Here’s another tip from The Verge:

One thing that sometimes helps is to look for patterns in the appearance of new appointments. For example, when I heard that the pharmacy chain Walgreens was going to begin giving out vaccines in my area, I spent a couple of days going onto the site, and suddenly realized that there was a pattern: the company was only scheduling appointments two to four days in advance and was adding new appointments each day just after midnight. Once I understood the pattern, I was able to get appointments for a couple of friends, and let others know about it as well. (Note: since vaccine supplies and scheduling methods can change on a dime, this particular strategy may no longer work by the time you read this.)


Like everything else here, that is certainly no guarantee that these tips will work, but again, anything you can do to increase your chances of getting an appointment is worth a try.

Don’t be a dick

We get it: desperate times call for desperate measures—especially when it comes to your own health, or the health of a loved one. But also keep in mind that the whole point of all of this is to end a pandemic that has resulted in a public health crisis. It’s in all of our best interest that as many people get vaccinated as possible, so try not to do anything to jeopardize that. A few examples:

Don’t make multiple appointments for one person

By all means, register on as many websites as you can in order to nab an appointment. But once you have a confirmed appointment, stop. You’re done. Don’t keep trying and book additional appointments through through health departments, hospital systems, or pharmacies. If you do so by accident, cancel the redundant booking right away (there should be instructions on how to cancel an appointment in your booking confirmation email).


Yes, you may mean well. Maybe you thought you might try your luck at booking additional appointments to give to friends and family members, but that’s fruitless; the appointment is tied to your name and information. That means that when someone who is not you shows up, they’ll likely be turned away—and that wastes everyone’s time. You can always check with your state in the event that they allow this type of thing, but don’t hold your breath.

Don’t share a booking link

If you get an email notification from a health department or hospital system letting you know that you’re now eligible to book and there are slots available, it may come with a link. That link is not public and is not meant to be shared. If people who were not sent the link directly use it to book appointments, they’re taking the spot of someone who is eligible and did receive the link.


On the flip side, be cautious about any links other people send you. For example, back in January, up to 20,000 people on Long Island booked spots using a widely-circulated link that wasn’t supposed to have been live yet, and they all had their appointments canceled.

Don’t lie about your eligibility

This one should be a given, but it’s been happening: If you’re not an essential worker, don’t indicate that you are. If you don’t have one of the preexisting conditions that makes you eligible for earlier access in your state, don’t lie and say that you do. Yes, this rollout has been a shitshow, but please, wait your turn. Don’t take an appointment away from someone in a higher-risk group.


Ebola Has Returned to Africa and Officials Are Racing to Contain It

The gates of the Matanda Hospital in Butembo, found in the North Kivu province of the DRC. The hospital is where the first case of a new Ebola outbreak in the country died earlier this month.

The gates of the Matanda Hospital in Butembo, found in the North Kivu province of the DRC. The hospital is where the first case of a new Ebola outbreak in the country died earlier this month.
Photo: Al-hadji Kudra Maliro (AP)

The deadly viral disease Ebola has once again surfaced in Africa, and health officials are rushing out vaccines and other measures to stop its spread. As of Tuesday, there have been at least 11 cases and seven deaths in two countries, including Guinea, which had a massive outbreak in 2013 that ultimately left 11,000 dead. Several other African countries are now on high alert.

In Guinea, at least seven cases have been reported since early February, with three victims having died so far. It’s the first outbreak in the region since the 2013-2016 epidemic that swept across West Africa and even briefly made its way to countries outside of Africa, including the U.S. It was the largest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history, with almost 30,000 cases and 11,000 deaths reported.


Elsewhere, the Democratic Republic of Congo—located in Central Africa—has reported four cases during the same time period, with two deaths so far. The DRC has faced the bulk of Ebola outbreaks since the virus was first discovered in 1976, including an outbreak that ran from 2018 to 2020 and left over 2,000 dead (the second-largest death toll ever). It is not yet known whether the outbreaks in Guinea and the DRC are connected. But according to Reuters, DRC officials have confirmed through genetic analysis that their current cluster can be traced back to the earlier outbreak in 2018. Genetic analysis of the virus found in Guinea is still underway and should provide answers soon.

On Monday, Guinea officially declared an Ebola epidemic, while the DRC had done so on February 7. The World Health Organization has also now alerted six countries bordering Guinea to be on the lookout for cases, including Liberia and Sierra Leone. Those three countries were the hardest hit during the 2013-2016 epidemic.

Much has changed since then—namely, the development of a highly effective vaccine by the company Merck as well as antiviral drugs (Merck’s vaccine was briefly deployed at the tail end of the 2014 outbreak but didn’t see wide use until 2018). But Africa, like many parts of the world, is still grappling with the covid-19 pandemic. The WHO said Tuesday that stockpiled supplies of vaccines and drugs are being sent over to Guinea and nearby countries. The United Nations also announced today that it will allocate $15 million in emergency relief funds to aid the response in both countries.


Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning the virus is natively found in wildlife (likely bats) and then spills over to people. If the DRC cluster is connected to an earlier outbreak, though, that may indicate it was somehow started through a human survivor. In people, it’s spread through close contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, which can include sex. Some people are known to carry the virus months after surviving their ordeal, usually in parts of the body less monitored by the immune system, like the eyes and sperm. At this point, it is not known how either outbreak began.

Symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, and muscle pain that can quickly progress to severe and fatal internal bleeding. The mortality rate of Ebola can range from 25% to 90%, though it usually hovers around 50%.


‘We Can’t Just Hope Symptoms Will Go Away’: The Mental Toll of Hurricanes on Kids

Illustration for article titled We Can’t Just Hope Symptoms Will Go Away: The Mental Toll of Hurricanes on Kids

Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

Mental health and natural disasters may seem like something that doesn’t need too much scientific research: It seems obvious that going through a terrifying hurricane, especially if you’re young and impressionable, could really mess a person up. But it looks like we may need to prepare more than we thought for helping kids weather some tough times as the planet warms. A new analysis published on Monday in JAMA Network Open finds that up to half of all children show some form of post-traumatic stress symptoms after hurricanes hit.

It’s well-established that after disasters, children have reported problems with mental health, physical health, and their learning, said Betty Lai, a professor of developmental psychology at Boston College and one of the authors of the new paper. Experts also have known for a while, Lai said, that kids can develop post-traumatic stress symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, heightened fear and distress, and changing behaviors to avoid reminders of the event following natural disasters.

But, Lai said, there was an issue with how experts framed the question of kids’ responses to disasters. “In the past, the way that we analyzed children’s responses to disasters was trying to figure out what was the ‘average’ reaction a kid would have,” she said. “Turns out, that’s not quite the right question to ask, and that’s why this study matters.”


The analysis combines data from four separate studies on the mental health of children in the aftermath of Hurricanes Andrew (1992), Charley (2004), Ike (2008), and Katrina (2005). The four studies in question followed more than 1,700 children between the ages of 6 to 16, recruited from schools in Texas, Florida, and Louisiana that were near or in the path of at least one of these storms. The studies kept track of them from three months to up to 26 months after the disaster.

“We really recognize that children have many different reactions to disasters,” Lai said. “This modeling lets us understand what are different typical patterns of reactions that children have.” By standardizing data across the study, Lai and other researchers were able to pull out what happens to different kids from different kinds of disasters over time.

The analysis found that very few of the kids experienced “chronic” symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Still, around 10 percent of the children in the survey experienced symptoms that started out intense and didn’t go away over time, requiring more serious interventions. The study also showed that there was little evidence of kids who suddenly developed intense symptoms months out from the disaster.


But a majority of kids, the study found, experienced a middle type of post-traumatic stress. Their symptoms of stress either started out intense and decreased over time, or they stayed at a lower level over the same time period. And just because a child’s mental health symptoms aren’t the most severe doesn’t mean they can’t be disruptive: recurring thoughts about a hurricane, trouble sleeping, or difficulty concentrating can impact learning and attendance.

“Even those middle-of-the-road symptoms can cause distress for kids,” Lai noted.

The data also showed that age seemed to be an insulating factor against chronic symptoms; the older a kid was, the more likely they were to have less distress after the disaster. Lai said experts are still trying to figure out how exactly age factors into the symptoms a child may develop after a traumatic event.


“It’s not until middle school and high school that kids have a better sense of an abstract meaning of life and how this all fits together,” she said. “Sometimes we see more severe reactions in elementary-aged kids. They have just experienced less of life, so a huge event has impacted a larger portion of your life. You have fewer experiences of not having this horrible event happen to you, and less context for how to understand it.”

And as weather-related disasters get more intense and frequent with climate change, it’s important to be prepared and act quickly to protect kids of all ages. Storms are already intensifying more than they used to. Though the study didn’t look at flooding, wildfires, or extreme heat, these climate change impacts are becoming more common and disruptive, too.


“We’re seeing these patterns really early on, three to six months post-disaster,” Lai said. “But a lot of times the intervention in terms of mental health doesn’t come until later. What this is telling us is that we have to assess early and then triage. We can’t just hope symptoms will go away.”

Diabetes Drug Found to Substantially Improve Obesity Treatment in Large Clinical Trial

Illustration for article titled Diabetes Drug Found to Substantially Improve Obesity Treatment in Large Clinical Trial

Image: Kiattisak Choohnoo/EyeEm (Getty Images)

The findings from a new clinical trial released Wednesday may point the way to an elusive goal: a safe and effective drug that helps reduce obesity in people.

The study found that people with obesity given a treatment currently used for type 2 diabetes lost significantly more weight than a control group, with one-third losing 20% or more of their body weight. Those in the experimental group also experienced greater improvements in other markers of health. However, the long-term health effects of the treatment are not yet known, meaning we do not yet know how effective or safe it is as an obesity treatment.

The drug is called semaglutide, and it’s been approved in the U.S. since 2017 to help people with type 2 diabetes. Semaglutide helps increase the body’s production of insulin, the hormone that plays a big role in controlling our blood sugar (people with type 2 diabetes either stop making enough insulin or stop responding to it as normal, which causes the unstable blood sugar levels that characterize diabetes). It does this by mimicking the human glucagon-like peptide-1 hormone, also called GLP-1.


GLP-1 is one lever of the body’s system that regulates our sense of hunger and metabolism. After eating, it’s usually released into the gut at high enough levels to curb our appetite. That’s likely why one commonly reported side effect of semaglutide in patients with diabetes has been reduced appetite and weight loss. And because obesity, a common risk factor of type 2 diabetes, often involves a dysfunctional metabolism, it’s also why some scientists have hoped that the drug could be retooled into a genuine obesity treatment.

This new Phase III trial (called STEP-1) was funded by Novo Nordisk—the makers of semaglutide—and involved nearly 2,000 patients over the age of 18 recruited in 16 countries from June to November 2018. The volunteers had all reported trying to lose weight unsuccessfully at least once and either had a body mass index over 30—the cut-off for obesity—or a BMI of 27 along with health complications likely related to their weight, but not including diabetes. (BMI, it should be noted, has been criticized as too imprecise to be a reliable marker of health). The findings were published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

All of the volunteers were encouraged to take on a reduced-calorie diet and exercise more. They also all received individualized counseling from dietitians once a month, either in-person or over the phone. But about half were randomized to receive a weekly injected dose of semaglutide, while the other received a placebo shot. Each dose of semaglutide was 2.4 milligrams, higher than the 1 milligram dose used for diabetes treatment.

By the end of the 68-week trial (which nearly all participants completed), the results were clear. Those on semaglutide experienced an average weight loss of 33 pounds, while the placebo group experienced an average loss of six pounds. Two-thirds of the treatment group lost at least 10% of their baseline weight, while one-third lost at least 20%. They also saw more substantial improvements in waist circumstance, blood pressure, and self-reported quality of life.


On the face of it, the findings are nothing short of tremendous, given the relative lack of options for people who seek to address their obesity with pharmaceuticals. (There are several drugs currently approved in the U.S. for obesity, but none have shown the degree of success seen here.)

“The findings of this study represent a major breakthrough for improving the health of people with obesity,” said Rachel Batterham, an obesity researcher at the University College London in the UK who helped lead one arm of the trial, in a statement released by the university. “No other drug has come close to producing this level of weight loss—this really is a gamechanger. For the first time, people can achieve through drugs what was only possible through weight-loss surgery.”


Despite the promising news, at least some outside experts are more cautious about the study’s implications. In an accompanying editorial, Julie Ingelfinger and Clifford Rosen—both medical doctors and editors with NEJM—called the results a “good beginning.”

In the trial, semaglutide was well-tolerated overall, even at a higher dose, with symptoms like nausea, diarrhea and vomiting more common in the treatment group. But Ingelfinger and Posen point out that other research has suggested that it could raise the risk of more serious health problems like pancreatitis. In mice, it’s been associated with certain thyroid tumors when taken as a pill, which is why the drug isn’t currently recommended for people with multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1, a hereditary condition that raises the risk of thyroid cancer.


They also note that obesity is a chronic condition. And despite the length of the 68-week trial, we still don’t know how effective, safe, or practical it would be for someone to take a weekly injected dose of semaglutide over the long term. These potential risks and limitations don’t mean that the drug can’t be used for obesity, but it does mean that scientists will need to keep evaluating whether its benefits outweigh its harms if it wins regulatory approval. Some health experts and activists have also questioned the value of obesity treatment in general, arguing that doctors should strive to improve people’s health at any size, while recognizing that weight loss may not be the optimal goal for some.

“In sum, we have a long way to go to control the obesity epidemic, but STEP 1 serves its name well,” they wrote.


Regulatory health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration will soon have to weigh these questions themselves, since Novo Nordisk is already planning to submit the drug for approval as an obesity treatment in Europe, the UK, and the U.S.

WHO Scientists Say Wuhan Lab Leak ‘Extremely Unlikely’ to Have Caused Covid-19 Pandemic

The P4 laboratory (center) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on May 13, 2020.

The P4 laboratory (center) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on May 13, 2020.
Photo: Hector Retamal / AFP (Getty Images)

Scientists assembled by the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the covid-19 pandemic have announced their early findings. They concluded that the first known cases traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, China in December 2019 likely don’t represent the original source of the outbreak. At the same time, they considered the possibility of a lab accident causing the pandemic “extremely unlikely,” and speculated that the virus wasn’t circulating locally in people for very long before the first cases were discovered.

The international team of scientists began their investigation in mid-January 2021, traveling to various areas of China, including the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan where the first cases of a then-mysterious pneumonia were reported in late December 2019. The investigation was a joint mission with local scientists from China, as part of an agreement made with the Chinese government in order to gain entry into the country. At a press conference held in Wuhan on Tuesday, the scientists laid out what they had found out so far.


The team’s conclusions are not final, and there will no doubt continue to be criticism of China’s handling of the pandemic, especially early on. Activists and local journalists have accused the Chinese government of silencing scientists and members of the public who tried to warn of the threat of covid-19 when it was first discovered. And it took close to a month before the country would acknowledge that the virus was indeed capable of spreading from person to person.

Even recently, the AP reported in December, China has tried to limit efforts by scientists to investigate the origins of the pandemic, while some officials have promoted unfounded theories about the virus having originated elsewhere in the world. That said, the AP has also reported that WHO scientists were granted as much access as they asked for during this investigation.

Among other things, the team said they found numerous bits of evidence suggesting that the Huanan cases weren’t the first cases of covid-19 in humans. One key finding, according to Liang Wannian—China’s lead scientist on the mission—was signs of diversity in samples of the coronavirus (formally called SARS-CoV-2) taken from these cases. That likely means the Huanan cluster wasn’t the original transmission event.

The team also looked at hospital surveillance data from Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei and determined that there weren’t unusual spikes in flu-like illness earlier than December 2019. This suggests, Wannian said, that “there was no substantial unrecognized circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019.” It’s worth noting that this finding is at odds with other evidence in China and in other countries suggesting that the virus may have been making people sick in November 2019 or earlier.


Another part of the investigation involved visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been singled out by some as the possible source of a lab accident that somehow released the coronavirus into the community (some have even argued that the virus was deliberately created and dispersed). No definitive evidence for this theory has emerged to date, while other studies have found no indication that the coronavirus was artificially made in the lab. The WHO team concluded that the lab leak theory was improbable enough to effectively close the book on it.

“The findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” said Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the WHO mission as well as an infectious disease and food safety expert, at the press conference.


The most likely possibility for the pandemic’s origin, Embarek said, is that the coronavirus leaped from bats to an intermediate host (possibly pangolins) and then to humans. Yet another possibility still being explored is that the virus could have been introduced to people through via frozen food products, since other evidence has suggested that it can survive in these conditions for a short time. However, the researchers did not go into detail as to how that pathway may have played out. And the WHO scientists still aren’t ruling out the possibility that bats alone transmitted the virus to humans.

Soon You’ll Be Able to Track Your Blood Glucose Levels in the Fitbit App

Illustration for article titled Soon Youll Be Able to Track Your Blood Glucose Levels in the Fitbit App

Image: Fitbit

Fitbit already gives you the ability to monitor your heart health, stress, and blood oxygen levels on some of its watches. Now the company is eyeing blood glucose-monitoring with a new feature in the Fitbit app.

The addition is good news for those with diabetes, as well as anyone with a medical condition that might need to track their blood sugar. But to be clear, this isn’t a non-invasive alternative to pricking your finger with a glucometer. This is a software update that allows users to log or import their blood sugar levels, and then see how they relate to other health metrics like sleep, exercise, and food over time. The app will also let users set personalized ranges so they can potentially identify other factors that might affect their blood sugar levels. You can also enable on-wrist reminders to log your blood sugar.


Fitbit Premium users will get a few more perks, like seeing how frequently their glucose levels fall within a target range each month and other data trends. Premium users will also get the ability to share their blood glucose data via Fitbit’s Wellness Report feature.

While users can manually log their measurements, Fitbit says anyone who uses the OneTouch Reveal app from LifeScan can also automatically import their data. The company says that it plans to integrate with other meters and apps soon. To enable the feature, you can go into the Fitbit app’s Discover tab, hit Health & Fitness Stats, and add Blood Glucose. (If you don’t see it there yet, you might have to wait a bit as Fitbit says the feature will be rolling out this month.)

More broadly speaking, it looks like blood glucose-monitoring might be the Next Big Thing in health tech. Rumor has it that both Apple and Samsung are working on ways to non-invasively monitor blood sugar in their next smartwatches. We also saw a non-invasive blood glucose-monitoring smartwatch prototype at this year’s CES. These are definitely more ambitious than what Fitbit’s currently offering, but those watches also may never see the light of day. A device that inaccurately reports blood sugar levels could be far more life-endangering than say, one wonky ECG reading, so these proposed devices will also need FDA clearance before they hit the market.

Fitbit Premium users will get extra data for blood glucose monitoring.

Fitbit Premium users will get extra data for blood glucose monitoring.
Image: Fitbit


Fitbit’s feature doesn’t need FDA clearance because it’s strictly a tool to help you monitor your data. That said, it does come with a disclaimer: This is not a replacement for a proper diagnosis from your doctor, nor is it something you should base your treatment on without talking to a physician.

Fitbit is also making its health features accessible to more users by extending access to its Health Metrics dashboard. The feature was introduced with the Sense and Versa 3 this past fall, but now it’ll be available for Versa 2, Inspire 2, and Charge 4 users, though you’ll be limited to the trends from the past week. As with blood glucose monitoring, Fitbit Premium members will gain the ability to see personal ranges within that dashboard as well. Charge 4 users also get a little SpO2 treat in an upcoming update that will allow them to see readings directly on-wrist; they’ll also be able to view SpO2 and skin temperature data in the dashboard. Meanwhile, Fitbit Sense users in Canada, New Zealand, and U.S. territories will also get the ECG app this month as well.


Climate Change Is Creating a Nightmare for Allergy Sufferers

Illustration for article titled Climate Change Is Creating a Nightmare for Allergy Sufferers

Photo: Phillippe Huguen (Getty Images)

A new study out Monday is the latest to suggest that climate change is already making people’s lives worse, this time for those allergic to pollen. The findings indicate show pollen season in North America has gotten measurably longer and that pollen has become more plentiful over the past three decades, due in part to a warmer climate.

There are different types of pollen from plants and trees that become prevalent at different times of the year. But typically, the pollen season starts in early spring and runs through the summer and early fall. These months are associated with an uptick in seasonal allergies, which is also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis. Sufferers experience cold-like symptoms like a stuffy or runny nose, watery eyes, along with itching around their nose and roof of the mouth.

The study’s researchers looked at data from pollen count stations across the U.S. and Canada, stretching between 1990 to 2018. During those years, they found that the pollen season has significantly changed. Compared to 1990, the average pollen season in an area now starts about 20 days earlier, runs 10 days longer, and pumps out 21% more pollen. While this change was seen everywhere, areas like Texas and the the midwestern U.S. saw the largest increases in total pollen over those years.


Some studies have found evidence in the lab that warmer temperatures should lead to worse pollen seasons. Others have predicted that certain allergy-causing plants like ragweed will become more widespread over the next few decades. But the new findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is some of the first research to explicitly tie climate change to worse pollen seasons, and to suggest that it’s making things worse here and now.

“Our results indicate that human-caused climate change has already worsened North American pollen seasons,” the authors wrote.

Climate change isn’t the only factor that’s making the pollen season more of a nightmare for allergy sufferers in recent years, they noted. But according to their model, it’s likely that climate change is primarily responsible for about half of the added days seen over this time, along with 8% of the heavier pollen counts. They also found that climate change has had a larger contribution on the pollen season as the years have gone on, which doesn’t exactly bode well for what’s ahead.


“It is likely that climate change will have even more of an impact on pollen seasons and respiratory health in the near future,” study author William Anderegg, a biologist at the University of Utah, told Gizmodo via email. “We saw in our study that the impacts of climate change were more pronounced over the 2003-2018 period as compared to the full 1990-2018 period. So, at least for the next decade or two, we very much expect this trend and the health impacts to continue.”

Of course, a lot more pollen every year isn’t the only thing that climate change threatens to bring along when it comes to human health. In the U.S., experts fear that longer and warmer seasons will raise the risk of numerous health problems, from tickborne illnesses like Lyme disease to heart attacks and heat stroke to the spread of tropical diseases as warming allows them to spread poleward.


A Nasal Spray for the Common Cold Is Closer to Reality

Illustration for article titled A Nasal Spray for the Common Cold Is Closer to Reality

Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)

A bonafide treatment for the common cold has eluded scientists for decades. But recent animal research from a team in Australia suggests that their experimental drug—delivered via nasal spray—could help the immune system fend off all sorts of respiratory infections. The treatment is now set to be tested out in a clinical trial of people in a matter of weeks.

The treatment is called INNA-X and is being developed by Ena Respiratory, a biotech company in Australia. The therapy is intended to buff up the immune system through activating a class of proteins called Toll-like receptors (TLRs). TLRs play a key role in the innate immune system, which is the first line of defense against foreign pathogens. This innate immune response not only attacks germs but also rallies the rest of the immune system into action.

“We have discovered that INNA-X primes the innate immune system in the airways so that when a virus enters your body (nose or throat) and initiates infection, your immune system is able to respond much more quickly and control the virus in the crucial first days after exposure to the virus,” Nathan Bartlett, a virologist at the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute who is working with Ena to study the drug, told Gizmodo in an email.


Though the development of INNA-X began before the pandemic, the treatment should ideally offer broad protection against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19, as well as the many viruses that cause the common cold, such as rhinoviruses. In two recent animal studies published last month, that seems to be the case.

One study conducted in ferrets—animals that are very vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2—found the drug could reduce replication of the coronavirus by up to 96% when compared to natural infection. Another study in mice found that INNA-X could boost the innate immune response against rhinovirus, leading to lower viral loads and lessened inflammation caused by viral infection. That study found that the drug could still affect airway cells taken from people with asthma, a condition known to dampen people’s natural immune response to respiratory viruses.

Successful studies in animals or human cells don’t always translate to a successful drug in people, of course. And even if INNA-X is successful, it wont be the perfect common cold cure we’re all hoping for. The immune-boosting effect of the drug is thought to last for about a week, so one dose wouldn’t protect people through the full cold and flu season (that said, other preclinical research has suggested it can be safely taken repeatedly). But it might still be a useful treatment for people at high risk of exposure or if taken soon after a confirmed exposure. In the context of covid-19 or future pandemics caused by similar viruses, the company hopes it could be used as a prophylactic to bridge the gap before an effective vaccine is available.


The next step of Ena’s research will test out a candidate for human use called INNA-05. This small Phase I clinical trial will only examine the safety of the treatment in healthy volunteers recruited in Australia, not its effectiveness. But the company has said that the drug could be available for use in as soon as 18 months if it continues to show promise in human trials.