COVID Booster: New WHO-recommended drugs, smart face masks, and poor birth outcomes

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

Two new COVID drugs recommended by the WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released new recommendations for the use of two drugs in the treatment of COVID-19.

The first, baricitinib, was strongly recommended for treatment of severe or critical COVID-19 in combination with corticosteroids. The decision was based on “moderate” evidence indicating that baricitinib, which is currently used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, improves survival and reduces the need for ventilation in people with severe COVID-19.

A monoclonal antibody drug called sotrovimab was also recommended for certain circumstances – specifically, for patients with non-severe COVID who are at high risk of hospitalisation. The benefits of sotrovimab for patients at lower risk of hospitalisation were not considered robust enough for the drug to be recommended more broadly.

The WHO guidelines, which are frequently updated, have previously recommended the use of corticosteroids and interleukin-6 receptor blockers in severe COVID-19 and of other monoclonal antibodies in certain patients. Convalescent plasma, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are not recommended to treat COVID-19.

Smart face masks

Engineers at Northwestern University in the US have developed “FaceBit” – a FitBit for your face.

It’s a small sensor, about the size of a large coin, that you can attach to any face mask. The FaceBit can track the user’s heart rate, breathing, and even whether their mask or respirator is properly fitted or leaking – a key advantage for the target audience of healthcare workers.

Inside of a respirator with a small battery-powered facebit device attached
The FaceBit device on a respirator. Credit: Northwestern University.

The device is powered by a tiny battery that can harvest additional energy from the user’s breathing, motion and body heat to extend its life between charges. Eventually, the researchers would like to develop a version of FaceBit that can be entirely run off these ambient power sources.

The project has been released as open source and open hardware, encouraging other researchers and engineers to build and improve the FaceBit.

Risk of poor birth outcomes associated with COVID-19 during pregnancy

A new study on the impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection on birth outcomes in the US has found that unvaccinated pregnant women who tested positive for the virus experienced increased rates of preterm birth, stillbirth and low birth weight.

The research team from the Institute for Systems Biology also found that these increased risks were still present even when the mother had a mild or moderate infection.  

“Both maternal and foetal health are at increased risk with COVID-19,” says corresponding author Jennifer Hadlock. “Therefore, this reinforces the importance of protecting pregnant women.”

Because the study was conducted before COVID-19 vaccines were widely available, none of the participants who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 had been vaccinated at the time of infection.

It remains to be seen whether vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 could decrease the risk of these poor birth outcomes associated with infection.

Pregnant woman wearing a face mask sits on a couch and speaks to a healthcare professional
Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty.

Using AI to search for the next SARS-like virus

It’s a truth no one really feels like dwelling on, but COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic – and disease surveillance is notoriously tricky and resource-intensive. An international research team has done a deep dive into the best way to predict the next SARS-like virus using artificial intelligence.

In a study published in Lancet Microbe, the research team trained eight different statistical models to predict which bat species could host betacoronaviruses, the virus family that includes SARS-CoV-2, and tested the models using real-world data as new hosts were discovered.

Interestingly, the models that took into account biological data on bat ecology and evolution performed much better than those that relied on mathematics alone.

The team hope that the optimised methods for predicting where SARS-like viruses will be found will free up time and resources for other aspects of pandemic preparedness.

“We can invest in building universal vaccines to target those viruses, or monitoring for spillover in people that live near bats,” says senior author Colin Carlson. “It’s a win-win for science and public health.”

Group of fruit bats flying against a blue sky
Credit: Bruno Guerreiro / Getty.

Has the pandemic made people less generous?

A study from a Spanish research team suggests that the onset of the pandemic may have made people more stingy.

The research focused on the initial rapid growth of COVID-19 in March 2020. Over a six-day period, participants were offered the chance to donate a fraction of a theoretical €100 (AU$157) prize to an unknown charity.

Participants over 40 years of age said they would donate significantly less money when surveyed in the second half of the study period, as COVID cases in Spain were exploding. The effect was also present but less pronounced in younger adults.

The researchers suggested that older people’s generosity may have been more affected because they were at higher risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19, a fact that was prominently featured in news media during the study period.

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