COVID Booster

Pandemic affected Australia’s mental health

Around one in five Australians had an increase in symptoms and intensity of depression during the 2020 lockdown, according to new research published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

The researchers, based at the Australian National University, surveyed 1,296 Australians every fortnight between late March 2020 and mid-June 2020. Seven surveys were done in total.

“Younger age, being female, greater COVID-19-related work and social impairment, COVID-19-related financial distress, having a neurological or mental illness diagnosis, and recent adversity were each significantly associated with higher baseline depression and anxiety scores,” write the authors in their paper.

“In contrast, few factors were statistically associated with changes in symptoms of depression or anxiety over the seven surveys: degree of direct exposure to COVID-19 was associated with less marked decline of symptoms of depression; being able to work from home and being female were associated with greater declines in symptoms of anxiety.”

Delaying second vaccine dose could lower death rate

Most COVID-19 vaccines – including the two approved in Australia – require two doses to reach full immunity, doubling the effort it takes to get everyone vaccinated. Some countries have experimented with delaying the second vaccine dose in order to get the first dose out to everyone faster, and now research published in The BMJ suggests that, depending on the method of delay, this could save lives.

The researchers, based at the Mayo Clinic in the US, simulated a population of 100,000 US adults, running a number of scenarios to see how COVID would spread over a six-month period.

Adjusting vaccine efficacy, administration, and transmission levels of the virus in various simulations, they consistently found that delaying the second vaccine dose for people under 65 resulted in fewer deaths in total.

“Decision makers will need to consider their local vaccination rates and weigh the benefits of increasing these rates by delaying a second dose versus the risks associated with the remaining uncertainty in this strategy,” write the researchers in their paper. “These decisions should continue to be re-evaluated as new data become available,” they add.

Most kids might have atypical COVID-19 symptoms

A study of 12,306 US children shows that the majority of paediatric COVID-19 cases may not show typical symptoms.

The study, which is described in a paper in Scientific Reports, examined the health records of children who had a laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19. Only 18.8% of the children had fever, malaise, muscle or joint pain, and disrupted smell or taste. Respiratory symptoms were seen in 16.5% of children, while gastrointestinal and dermatological symptoms occurred in 13.9% and 8.1% of patients respectively. Headaches occurred in 4.8% of patients.

Only 672 children (5.5%) of children in the study were hospitalised, but Black and Hispanic children were more likely to be hospitalised than their White counterparts.

The authors urge for increased vigilance and screening in children, given the relative absence of ‘normal’ COVID symptoms. They suggest this should come in tandem with efforts to curtail existing racial health disparities.

Over 100 million people engaged with vaccine misinformation online

A study from the University of New South Wales has done a deep dive into misinformation over the last year, collecting and examining online rumours and conspiracy theories from 31 December 2019 – 30 November 2020.

The researchers, who have published their findings in PLOS One, identified and examined 637 vaccine-related pieces of misinformation.

“From previous studies, we’ve been able to link this misinformation with negative outcomes, including death,” says Holly Seale, an associate professor at UNSW and senior author on the paper.

They found that over 103 million people had liked, shared, retweeted or reacted with an emoji to vaccine misinformation over the time period.

The researchers say that traditional risk communication and community engagement are the best methods of countering this misinformation.

To learn about how AI interacts with and can counter misinformation, read Adam Dunn’s piece in Cosmos Weekly.

New tool for genomic tracking

A phylogenetic tree showing different lineages of covid-19. Each colour represents a different group of the virus, while each dot is a different strain.
A phylogenetic tree showing different lineages of COVID-19. Each colour represents a different group of the virus, while each dot is a different strain. Credit: (CC BY 4.0)

Genetic sequencing has been a key part of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic – both to track variants around the world, and to identify the source of outbreaks in quarantine.

As variants emerge and more cases are sequenced, the phylogenetic tree of COVID-19 is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate, with nearly 100,000 public sequences by the end of September 2020.

A group of researchers, some from the Australian National University, have developed a new tool to speed up the process of incorporating new sequences to the genomic tree.

Their tool, Ultrafast Sample placement on Existing tRees (UShER), organises data on the virus in such a way that it can quickly determine where new sequences fit on the phylogenetic tree.

The tool is described in detail in a paper published in Nature Genetics, and is publicly available through the University of California Santa Cruz SARS-CoV-2 Genome Browser.

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