MILWAUKEE — Over the past year, the scientific world has seen a steady flow of research updating what we know about the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and how it affects humans.
Because the virus is so new, researchers are still grappling with many questions about its function. And because of the nature of the scientific process, no single study can completely answer those questions. Instead, new research is constantly challenging our understanding of the pandemic.
Here, we explore some recent studies that have shed new light on the virus.
Promising news for vaccines vs. mutated virus
As vaccine distribution has kicked off across the world, the rise of two extra-contagious COVID-19 strains has raised concerns about whether the virus could slip past the shots’ protection.
Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case, according to a study from Pfizer/BioNTech last week. In the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, the antibodies from people who have gotten Pfizer’s vaccine were able to fight off mutated viruses.
“There’s no reason to think the vaccines won’t work just as well on these strains,” Frederic Bushman, who has been tracking the virus’s mutations, told the Associated Press.
Though viruses mutate constantly, these two strains — one first discovered in the United Kingdom, and another found in South Africa — have racked up more changes than usual. And both strains include one key mutation, known as N501Y, which affects the virus’s signature spike protein.
The virus uses its spike protein to invade human cells, and studies have found that the N501Y mutation lets the virus latch on more closely. This tighter fit may help explain why the mutated strains appear to spread more quickly.
Critically, the spike protein also serves as the target for COVID-19 vaccines. That’s why some scientists were worried that changes in the spike would hide the virus from the vaccine-trained antibodies.
In Pfizer’s study, researchers took blood samples from 20 people who had gotten the shots in clinical trials and put them in a lab dish to face off with N501Y-mutated viruses. The result of these smackdowns: Antibodies in the blood neutralized the viruses just as effectively, with or without the mutation.
Though the study didn’t test other vaccines — like those from Moderna or AstraZeneca — the results are still promising, since the other shots also focus on the spike protein.
And they’re especially a big relief as the two variants continue to crop up all over the world: The U.K. strain has been reported in at least 50 countries, including at least 72 cases in the United States. Wisconsin reported its first case of the mutated virus on Wednesday.
Wuhan study shows lasting impacts on the earliest COVID-19 patients
Around 90 million people across the world have caught COVID-19 and lived. More will certainly follow as cases surge in multiple countries. For the growing masses of survivors, a huge question remains: How long can the disease’s effects stick around?
In the largest study of its kind so far, Chinese researchers checked in on COVID-19 patients six months after they first got sick. Most of them still weren’t feeling great: 76% of patients suffered at least one symptom even half a year later, the study found.
The lingering symptoms affected a wide range of body parts — from diminished lung function and kidney issues to fatigue and psychological distress.
“Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, we are only beginning to understand some of its long-term effects on patients' health,” Bin Cao, one of the study’s authors, said in a release. “Our analysis indicates that most patients continue to live with at least some of the effects of the virus after leaving hospital.”
The study included more than 1,700 people discharged from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital, representing a wide swath of the earliest known COVID-19 patients.
Most of the patients (63% of them) still reported fatigue or muscle weakness long after their initial infections, according to the study. Around 26% said they were having difficulty sleeping, and 23% showed signs of anxiety or depression.
The study adds to a growing body of evidence that COVID-19’s impacts may stretch long beyond the initial bout of sickness, and can turn up all over the human body — even affecting the mind.
Another recent study — conducted by an international group of COVID-19 “long-haulers,” who have organized to research their own conditions — found that many patients still couldn’t return to work because of their symptoms seven months later. In survey excerpts shared in the study, long-haulers reported feeling exhausted, confused, and forgetful, unable to complete tasks like holding a phone call or following the plot of a movie.
“This is the extreme opposite of who I am,” wrote one self-described “workaholic” who’s now unable to work. “I do not know the person I have become.”
Pandemic made 2020 the deadliest year in U.S. history
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Protection are still finalizing mortality reports for 2020, early data show that the arrival of COVID-19 has led to some devastating trends.
Last year’s death toll surpassed 3 million for the first time ever, as the Associated Press reports. If end-of-year predictions hold true, the country could face a 15% jump in deaths over the past year — the biggest increase since 1918’s double whammy of a flu pandemic and a world war.
As of Thursday, the U.S. had reported more than 380,000 deaths from COVID-19.
Plus, the pandemic might have indirectly caused other types of deaths, as the CDC’s Robert Anderson told the AP. Unexpected jumps in diabetes, dementia, and heart disease deaths may be partially due to disruptions in regular care; “deaths of despair,” including suicides and drug overdoses, have also gone up in the pandemic’s difficult conditions.
Before 2020, the country was making some small gains in average life expectancy. A CDC report found that life expectancy ticked up to 78.8 years in 2019 — but coronavirus deaths may set that number back by as much as three years.
COVID-19 was probably the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for the year, according to a data analysis from Scientific American, with only heart disease and cancer taking a greater toll. If the current concerning trends continue, the virus will likely be the leading cause of death for this winter, even as life-saving vaccines are rolling out across the country.
As infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told NPR last week, “things will get worse” before they get better. Saving more lives will require us to really stick to public health precautions, and not just rely on the shots to end the pandemic.
“Now's not the time to pull back on this,” he said.
COVID-19 could stick around — as a common cold
As more vaccines get into the arms of people across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic as we know it should start to fade. But that doesn’t mean the novel coronavirus will vanish completely.
Instead, some scientists predict that the virus will keep circulating for many years to come — in a much less destructive form.
“We are going to live with this virus, we think, forever,” Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said at a panel reported by CNBC.
In a study published Tuesday, researchers from Emory and Penn State modeled what the future of the virus could look like as more people gain immunity. They predicted that, moving forward, the novel coronavirus could become “endemic” to humans: It would still circulate at low levels, but wouldn’t usually cause severe illness.
Right now, SARS-CoV-2 leads to severe (and often deadly) symptoms because it’s a new threat for adult immune systems. When the novel coronavirus is less, well, novel, we’ll be better equipped to deal with it.
The model predicts that, once we build up immunity in adult populations, the SARS-CoV-2 virus will act a lot like other common cold viruses, which most kids encounter by the time they’re 5 years old.
Children’s immune systems are pretty good at adapting to new invaders — after all, just about every virus is new to them — so their symptoms tend to be less severe. And once they’re exposed, they’ll have some protection as adults. Even if these kids are reinfected later in life, they won’t face the life-threatening illnesses we’re seeing now, the study predicts.
Four other coronaviruses are already endemic across the world. Getting SARS-CoV-2 to the same status could take a few years to multiple decades, depending on the virus’s spread as well as the global vaccine rollout, according to lead author Jennie Lavine.
“Really, the name of the game is getting everyone exposed for the first time to the vaccine as quickly as possible,” Lavine told The New York Times.
Other news to note:
Women in the U.S. lost 156,000 jobs in December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — even as men gained 16,000 jobs back.
Several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for the virus. They’re the first great apes with reported infections, although other captive species, including lions and tigers, have contracted the virus.
Late-stage trial results out of Brazil found that a vaccine candidate developed by Chinese company Sinovac is only about 50% effective — much lower than previously claimed.
A bit of good news for the planet: Greenhouse gases dropped by more than 10% in the U.S. last year, one study found, reaching their lowest levels in three decades as transportation use plummeted.