coronavirus

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The coronavirus variant is on track to become the dominant version of the virus in the U.S. Here's what you need to know about it and the delta plus variant.

A more contagious variant of the coronavirus, known as delta, is spreading in the United States and around the world, causing a surge of cases in some countries and prompting several nations to introduce new lockdowns.

The delta variant, which was first identified in India, now accounts for 25 percent of new Covid-19 cases in the U.S., and is on track to become the dominant version of the virus circulating in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a news briefing last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the delta variant the “greatest threat” to eliminating Covid-19 in the U.S.

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The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

COVID-19 survivors may have loss of brain tissue

Even mild cases of COVID-19 may lead to loss of brain tissue, according to findings from a long-term study involving 782 volunteers. As part of the ongoing UK Biobank study, participants underwent brain scans before the pandemic. For a before-and-after comparison, researchers invited 394 COVID-19 survivors to come back for follow-up scans as well as 388 healthy volunteers. Most of the COVID-19 survivors had had only mild-to-moderate symptoms, or no symptoms at all, while 15 had been hospitalized. Among the COVID-19 survivors, researchers saw "significant" loss of gray matter in regions of the brain related to smell and taste - the left parahippocampal gyrus, left orbitofrontal cortex and left insula. Some of the affected brain regions are also involved in the memory of experiences that evoke emotional reactions, the researchers noted in a report posted on medRxiv on Tuesday ahead of peer review. The changes were not seen in the group that had not been infected. The authors said more research is needed to determine whether COVID-19 survivors will have issues in the longer term with their ability to remember emotion-evoking events. They also do not yet know whether the loss of gray matter is a result of the virus spreading into the brain, or some other effect of the illness.

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One of the Big Questions about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has for a while been about its origins. Most viruses that cause disease in humans have long, fascinating origin stories, with jumps from animal to animal until they finally make it into people and start killing them.

But COVID-19, goes the theory, must be lab-grown - either from an intentional lab leak or a mistake of epic proportions - there's simply too much circumstantial evidence to ignore! This idea doesn't really make sense. There's no special reason to believe that COVID-19 must have been grown in a lab.

Sure, there's political reasons that we might think the Chinese government is untrustworthy, but that's a slim basis for a theory. As humans, when we are given two possibilities, we assume that they are somewhat equivalent in likelihood, so when you hear "lab leak or natural origin" it's not unreasonable to assume that those two things are about as likely as one another, even though that makes no sense whatsoever.

We know from decades of evidence that new diseases jump from animals to humans all the time. There are literally dozens of cases in the last few decades alone where an entirely new disease has transferred from a non-human host to people.

This has even happened twice in recent memory with coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2, which gives you some idea of just how unsurprising it is when a novel pathogen of likely animal origin is identified.

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The Canadian government is talking to international partners about the development of COVID-19 vaccination certificate systems that might one day help facilitate travel across international borders but bureaucrats in Ottawa, as well as some politicians, wonder if such a system is the best way to proceed.

“We are working on it on a scientific basis and we will have more to announce when we have it to announce,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday. “Right now we’re focussed on getting through this pandemic and being prepared to come roaring back once we’re through it.”

The lack of enthusiasm in federal government circles to develop vaccination certificates is matched by the World Health Organization which argued in a paper it published in February that “national authorities and conveyance operators should not introduce requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission.”

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One of the last times I stepped outside my Brooklyn apartment without a mask on was in early spring 2020, just before the state issued a mask mandate. I remember because as my dog peed on a tree, a neighbor asked me pointedly where my mask was. Where I live, almost everyone wears a mask when they go outside. If a person sipping from an iced coffee with their mask pulled down approaches someone else on the sidewalk coming the other way, they will usually yank the mask back up, as if they’ve been caught partially dressed. The other day I noticed a woman sitting on a hill in the middle of a field with her face covered. There was no one near her.

For a while now, this has felt a little unnecessary, if understandable, given that we were still learning things about the virus and were trying to be as careful as possible. But now, as we’ve come to know more about the virus, as vaccinations are ramping up, and as we’re trying to figure out how to live with some level of COVID in a sustainable way, masking up outside when you’re at most briefly crossing paths with people is starting to feel barely understandable. Look: I believe masks (and even shaming) are indispensable in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Despite early waffling, public health experts are virtually unanimously in support of them and have remained so even as our early dedication to scrubbing surfaces and Cloroxing veggies wound down.

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Research has long shown that regular exercise has a slew of health benefits like helping to prevent high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Now researchers say regular activity could help protect against severe Covid hospitalizations.

In a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers and physicians at Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center in Southern California, the University of California, San Diego, and other institutions found that Covid patients who regularly exercised before becoming sick were the least likely to be hospitalized, admitted to the ICU and die as a result of their illness.

The study looked at data from nearly 50,000 adult patients in California diagnosed with Covid-19 from January 2020 to the end of October 2020.

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It will boil down to two predominant factors that control how a virus behaves in a population: the virus’s biology and the immunity of the host population.

Endemic viruses are those that have constant presence within a geographical area. Such viruses are all around us, though they vary by location. Examples in Europe and North America include the rhinovirus (a cause of the common cold) and influenza virus, while the dengue and chikungunya viruses are endemic in many Asian countries.

Endemic diseases are often milder, but it’s important to note that this isn’t always the case. Flu, for instance, is estimated to cause up to 810,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths annually in the US.

There are currently four endemic coronaviruses that, for most people, just cause a cold. Whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, will join them will be down to two predominant factors that control how a virus behaves in a population: the virus’s biology and the immunity of the host population.

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