COVID Booster: Nasal vaccines, music and donation generosity

TGA officially approves rapid antigen tests

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has officially approved three rapid antigen self-tests for COVID-19.

While they’re not as accurate as the gold-standard PCR testing, these tests deliver results in 20 minutes and can be done by a non-specialist. (Cosmos has an explainer on rapid antigen tests here.)

They’ve previously been used in some aged care and healthcare facilities, but this approval indicates that from 1 November, people can test themselves for COVID in private homes.

The instructions for each test stress that “a positive result means it is very likely you have COVID-19” but all positive results should be followed up with PCR tests. Similarly, anyone who receives a negative result but has COVID-19 symptoms should continue to isolate, and get another test if symptoms don’t improve.

Needle-free vaccines for COVID-19?

Several research teams and companies are working towards intranasal vaccines for COVID-19, with some promising results.

Unlike the currently available COVID vaccines, which are administered by intramuscular injection, intranasal vaccines would be delivered as a nasal spray.

The intranasal delivery mechanism would have a few key advantages.

Firstly, the intranasal approach targets one of the sites where the SARS CoV-2 virus likes to hang out and be passed from person to person – the upper respiratory tract. Current COVID vaccines produce what’s called a systemic immune response (around the whole body), which is very effective in stopping vaccinated people from getting severe illness.

However, studies indicate that current vaccines aren’t quite as good at reducing viral load in the nose, meaning that vaccinated people can still transmit the virus. An intranasal vaccine that supports an immune response within the mucosal tissue in the nose might be more effective in keeping those viral loads low and reducing the risk of transmission.

“It’s actually very hard to protect the upper respiratory tract with these systemic vaccines,” says Vincent Munster of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories.

Also, intranasal vaccines will probably be easier to deliver. They require less specialised training to administer compared to injected vaccines, and would be more acceptable for children and people with needle fears.

“I feel a real sense of urgency to develop this vaccine for kids,” said Martin Moore, CEO of Meissa Vaccines and father to a nine-year-old affected by pandemic-related school closures. Meissa has recently launched a Phase 1 trial of an intranasal COVID vaccine.

Older people more likely to distance and donate during the pandemic

A paper in Nature Aging has found that older adults were more likely to behave in a “prosocial” way (taking actions that benefit others) on two measures: social distancing during COVID-19, and willingness to donate to charities.

The researchers, based at the University of Birmingham in the UK, examined data from a global survey of 46,576 people from 67 different countries. The survey was completed in April and May 2020.

Participants answered several questions about their social distancing behaviour. They were also asked to imagine donating money to a hypothetical COVID-19 related charity.

“Participants were asked to imagine they received an amount of money (the median daily wage in their country) and what percentage they would: keep, donate to a national charity; and donate to an international charity,” explain the researchers in their paper.

Despite being less willing to donate overall, younger people were more likely to donate to international charities, while older people were inclined towards the local option. Interestingly, those who perceived themselves as wealthier said they would donate a smaller proportion of their money.

Making music lessons COVID-safe

Musicians and engineers have teamed up on research to help understand and mitigate the risks of COVID transmission while singing or playing musical instruments. It turns out that masking up seems to work for musical instruments as well as for human faces.

One of the major lessons since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the importance of aerosol transmission – the risk of infection from viral particles in the air created when people sing, speak or exhale.

The risk from aerosols has been bleakly illustrated by infamous superspreader events, such as a choir practice held in the US in March 2020. About 85% of attendees are believed to have been infected at the rehearsal. Sadly, three were hospitalised and two died of COVID.

Like singing, playing woodwind and brass musical instruments requires exhaling a lot of air and creating aerosols. So, researchers set themselves the task of scientifically measuring aerosol formation and dynamics while playing music.

“We knew that singing was risky because there were confirmed outbreaks, but we knew nothing about musical instruments,” said Tehya Stockman, a graduate student at the University of Colorado and lead author on the recent study.

After measuring the aerosols, the research team next tested several ways to mitigate their spread. Based on their findings, they came up with a list of affordable strategies to make music more COVID-safe. The recommendations include adding masks or filters to brass and woodwind instruments, maintaining social distancing between performers and audience, limiting the length of performances, and performing outside when possible.

“If we can get used to using these mitigations, we can continue operating at very low risk,” said Mark Spede, national president of the College Band Directors National Association.

The data is in: COVID-19 doom-scrolling is bad for your mood

It takes just a couple of minutes of consuming negative COVID-related news to bring you down, according to new research.

The UK and Canadian researchers were interested in the effect of “doom-scrolling” – which they define as “becoming caught in an unending cycle of negative news” – on mental health. Not all COVID news is negative, though – the pandemic has also inspired acts of solidarity and kindness.

In the study, participants were exposed to negative or positive COVID-related news, or to no news, on either Twitter or YouTube. They then completed questionnaires that measured their positive and negative affect (mood) and their optimism.

The study found that 2-4 minutes of consuming negative COVID news led to an immediate and significant reduction in positive affect on both platforms, and also to a reduction in optimism on YouTube.

On the other hand, consuming positive COVID news did not appear to negatively affect the participants. The researchers suggested that, rather than having to shield ourselves from all COVID news, “kindness-scrolling” could help to balance out doom-scrolling when it comes to our mental health.

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