Some good news
"The way in which newspapers, radio, and TV communicate their news to us creates an atmosphere of constant emergency. The excited voices of reporters, the predilection for gruesome accidents, cruel crimes, and perverted behaviour, and the hour-to-hour coverage of human misery at home and abroad slowly engulf us with an all-pervasive sense of impending doom."
- Henry Nouwen, Making All Things New (1981)
It's day 15 of the curfew in Sri Lanka and given our collective preoccupation with case counts, death rates and other disheartening notifications, I've taken it upon myself to research and draft a list of the ten most promising news updates I could find relating to COVID-19. These range from recoveries to heartening scientific progress to emerging policy trajectories for governments.
As of 3 April 2020:
Global recoveries: There have been 223, 697 recoveries, and counting (Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering, Johns Hopkins University)
Sri Lankan recoveries: There have been 24 recoveries, and counting (Source: Epidemiology Unit, Sri Lanka)
Whole Genome Sequencing: Several countries and institutions have made progress in decoding the whole genome sequence of the novel coronavirus. (Note: Whole genome sequencing is the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism's genome at a single time). It started on 10 January, with researchers from Shanghai, Wuhan, Beijing and Sydney who identified the previously unknown coronavirus and deposited a draft genome sequence in the publicly available GenBank sequence repository . Subsequent groups of scientists also isolated the virus and deposited more genome sequences. The genome sequencing process revealed that the virus shared over 85% sequence identity with a known SARS-like coronavirus found in bats. On 24 January, the Institut Pasteur - responsible for monitoring respiratory viruses in France - became the first institution in Europe to completely sequence the virus since the outbreak. (Source: Nature.com and Science Daily)
Rapid testing: Working from these sequence data, the medical community has been rallying to develop rapid and reliable molecular diagnostic tests. Several international groups developed PCR tests to support global public health laboratories in the absence of a commercial test for COVID-19. This formed the basis of shipments of 250,000 PCR kits which the WHO dispatched to 159 laboratories across the globe. In contrast, it took almost six months to identify and establish assays for the coronavirus responsible for the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak (Source: Nature.com)
Over 40 candidate vaccines: As of 20 March, 2 candidate vaccines were in Phase 1 clinical trials (i.e. testing of drug on healthy volunteers for safety; involves testing multiple doses) while 42 candidate vaccines were at the pre-clinical stage (i.e. the stage before human testing when feasibility and drug safety data are collected.) (Source: WHO)
First vacine in Phase 1 trials: On 16 March, Phase 1 testing of an experimental vaccine for the novel coronavirus began at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle using a vaccine made by Moderna Inc. Such rapid development of a potential vaccine was only possible because researchers were able to use what they already knew about related coronaviruses that had caused SARS and MERS. (Source: New York Times)
Global megatrial of 4 therapies: On 20 March, WHO launched a global megatrial of the four most promising coronavirus treatments - an experimental antiviral compound called remdesivir; the malaria medications chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine; a combination of two HIV drugs (lopinavir and ritonavir), and that same combination plus interferon-beta, an immune system messenger that can help cripple viruses. If proven effective, drugs that slow or kill the novel coronavirus could save lives and reduce the time patients spend in ICUs while also being given prophylactically to protect health care workers and others at high risk of infections. (Source: Sciencemag.org)
Efficacy of convalescent plasma being investigated: The FDA has approved an exploratory treatment that involves the use of convalescent plasma collected from recovered COVID-19 patients. It is possible that convalescent plasma that contains antibodies to the virus might be effective against the infection. The FDA is facilitating access to COVID-19 convalescent plasma for use in patients with serious or life-threatening COVID-19 infections. (Source: FDA.gov)
Decontamination of used N95 masks: Facing a critical shortage of N95 face masks that block the coronavirus, Duke Health research and clinical teams have confirmed a way to use existing vaporized hydrogen peroxide methods to decontaminate masks so they can be reused. (Source: Duke University)
Implications for global wildlife trade: The novel coronavirus, which emerged from the global wildlife trade, may be devastating enough to end it - provided governments act decisively. About 75% of emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19 are zoonotic - meaning they originate in animals. HIV is a particularly compelling example - it originated from chimps in central Africa and is thought to have jumped to humans through consumption of bushmeat or meat from wildlife (which is also the likely origin of the Ebola outbreaks). When SARS first emerged in China in 2002-03 - transmitted through live wildlife markets - the Chinese government enacted strict regulations to end wildlife trade and associated risks. The policies were later weakened in response to cultural and economic pressures. Now, repercussions from COVID-19 are driving further reforms to curtail wildlife trade. (Source: The Conversation)