A regular Cosmos digest of coronavirus disease science, data, reporting and optimism.
The research community’s response to coronavirus has been swift, rigorous – and largely unseen. Research funders and more than 300 world scientists met at WHO on 11–12 February to identify urgent priorities for research.
The WHO maintains a hub for a range of research findings, with reports divided into several categories, including vaccines, therapeutics and ethics.
Among journals responding to the pandemic, The Lancet has established a COVID-19 Resource Centre to capture all articles, comments and correspondence across all Lancet journals.
New research work also is starting to focus on coronavirus-related matters. In a paper just published in JAMA Network Open, for example, the Chinese authors say health care workers on the frontline have a high risk of developing unfavourable mental health issues and are likely needing psychological support or interventions.
The team surveyed health care workers at 34 hospitals in the thick of coronavirus treatment and found they were commonly reporting symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress. This was especially prevalent in women, nurses, workers in Wuhan, and those people directly involved in taking care of, or diagnosing people with, or suspected to have, COVID-19.
In Australia, the weekend’s stories included the Queensland’s government’s announcement of funding to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine.
And it seems there’s nothing like a global health crisis to have people paying attention to scientists and the science leaders in several countries have unexpectedly become the "rock stars" of the moment.
So many numbers and – as quarantine requirements evolve and tighten – so much time to consider them. At layperson level, it’s good to have the basics on what numbers matter and why before wading deeper into the data.
Several web providers have stunning presentations of the growing coronavirus disease datasets, and in many cases these graphic displays make it far easier to understand and track the pathogen’s spread: WHO’s COVID situation dashboard is a good example. Most of these are regularly, if not constantly, updated.
Particular favourites include the “Information is beautiful” COVID-19 Data Pack and the “Genomic epidemiology of novel coronavirus” page maintained by Nextstrain, an open-source project that “aims to provide a real-time snapshot of evolving pathogen populations and to provide interactive data visualizations to virologists, epidemiologists, public health officials and citizen scientists”.
On 16 March, it was announced that the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University, US, was partnering with leading research groups to prepare and distribute the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19).
This resource of more than 29,000 articles about COVID-19 and the coronavirus family of viruses is for use by the global machine learning community. The dataset, says CORD-19, “represents the most extensive machine-readable coronavirus literature collection available for data and text mining to date.” The set includes papers from peer-reviewed journals, as well as websites, such as bioRxiv, where scientists can post non-peer-reviewed preprint papers.
CSET’s data science director, Dewey Murdick, says the initiative is designed to help speed response to this global crisis. “The worldwide machine learning community now has the opportunity to apply recent advances in natural language processing to find answers to important questions about this infectious disease,” he says
The volume of reporting from reputable media outlets is vast, dynamic, growing and widely shared. The best coronavirus journalism is measured and credible, and often brilliantly illustrated. Many news organisations that routinely keep content behind a paywall have made all coronavirus disease coverage free. Some favourites from recent days:
From the frontline: Singapore
First case reported 23 January
Cases 308; Deaths 2
(At 12:00 local time on Sunday 22 March)
By Nora Lee
I guess that I’m lucky I live in Singapore in these crazy times of COVID-19. We started taking this disease seriously quite early on – even before it had an official name.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate is the fact that the Singapore government acted early and communicated the risks and issues clearly and calmly from the very beginning.
It’s become increasingly clear how important that is as I read daily about what’s happening in other countries. Many people lament how their governments didn’t act fast enough, or had squandered their lead time, and how there’s a general lack of trust in how their leaders are managing the pandemic.
So here, we’ve been dealing with the outbreak for a couple of months now and naturally, some parts of our lives have changed. We get daily updates on cases and almost daily changes in policy and rules.
In the last week alone, we went from the government discouraging non-essential travel to them discouraging all travel. Now we’ve also closed our borders to short-term visitors. It’s hard to keep track of all the changes but the constant has always been wash your hands, don’t stand so close to each other and avoid crowded areas.
We’ve witnessed a couple of rounds of panic buying, first time when the government announced we were going to DORSCON-Orange and again last week when neighbour Malaysia announced it was closing its borders for two weeks.
Yes, we’ve also seen toilet paper disappearing from stores and also pondered what magical powers loo rolls hold.
In the beginning, we saw hand sanitiser and surgical masks wiped out from store shelves but in the last couple of weeks, hand sanitisers have made a comeback, although masks are still missing. We also had people who tried to profit from the pandemic by selling the items at inflated prices, but that was shut down by the authorities pretty early on.
Essentially, the panic seen in other countries now, we’ve seen it happen here to some extent.
Through it all, life has remained relatively sane for me. The country’s not on lockdown and we have no movement restrictions. But things do change quickly, and I think that’s one thing we’ve come to accept — that tomorrow or maybe even tonight can bring a new set of rules or policies.
My brother and his family are in Malaysia and they are under movement restriction orders now, a surprise announcement that sprang up last week. I text him and my two older nephews often to check in. One of them was ill last week and it was stressful to hear, knowing I can’t visit them should anything happen. I’m glad we have Netflix to bond over — my second nephew and I recently exchanged texts about what we thought of the second season of the Korean period Zombie thriller, Kingdom (in a nutshell: bloody, awesome, can’t wait for season three).
For the past two months, I haven’t had to make major changes to my lifestyle. I work from home anyway, so I’ve been lucky that I didn’t have to adjust my work arrangement. My partner and many friends, however, have had to deal with disruptions like staggered working hours and alternate weeks working from home.
I also managed to have some semblance of a normal life throughout — going out for some meals, grocery shopping, taking walks in the park, the occasional gym visit — although as the weeks passed, new measures were introduced, such as temperature taking before entering some areas. We get a sticker (a different one daily) to indicate that we don’t have a fever. It’s just something we take as the new normal.
Last week, however, I had a bit of a scare that will likely lead to a few changes.
On Monday I had a fever and a runny nose. My regular GP was closed for the afternoon and I spent three very anxious hours waiting for the clinic to open.
During that time, all I could think about was, “What if it’s COVID?” and more urgently, “What if I ‘d passed this on to my parents?” You see, I’d visited them two days before.
My 70-year-old dad has a litany of health issues, including a history of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure; and my 69-year-old mum also has chronic health issues.
I already felt ill but was also overwhelmed with the fear that I could have passed it on to my vulnerable parents. Of course – spoiler alert – it turns out I had a regular cold and I’m fine now. But let me just say that the fear is real. I even asked my partner to sleep apart on a mattress on the floor for a few days just in case.
Some of you may think that this has all been overblown and that this strain of coronavirus is just like the flu. But that doesn’t change the fact that people are getting sick and the last thing you want is to be responsible for passing it on to the people you love.
So now, I’ve decided to further minimise my time outside. Except for an occasional grocery run, a careful visit with the parents and a walk for fresh air, I plan to stay in, watch a lot more TV and fuss over the cats. They’re definitely not complaining.