The items below are highlights from the newsletter, “Smart, useful, science stuff about COVID-19.” To receive newsletter issues daily in your inbox, sign-up here.

On 6/10/20, The New York Times published a “coronavirus vaccine tracker,” by Jonathan Corum and Carl Zimmer. With prose and graphics, it describes the status of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidates currently being developed and tested. The piece explains the timeline of the phases involved in developing a vaccine (or other therapy), i.e. the path from preclinical testing (animal research) to phase 3 efficacy trials (experiments testing the effectiveness of a vaccine or therapy in thousands of people) and approval. The names of companies developing vaccine candidates and each company's progress through the phases are listed for each type of vaccine approach, e.g. genetic vaccines, viral vector vaccines, etc. The counts reported in the story: 125 or more vaccine candidates in preclinical experiments; 7 in phase 1 (small safety studies in humans), 7 in phase 2 (safety tests on hundreds of people), 1 in phase 3, and 0 approved by regulators in each country. 

Three large studies of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine show either no protection from SARS-CoV-2 for people already exposed to it (so-called post-prophylaxis exposure) or no treatment benefit for people with severe cases of COVID-19, reports Kai Kupferschmidt at Science (6/9/20). “The new results mean it’s time to move on, some scientists say, and end most of the trials [experiments] still in progress,” Kupferschmidt writes. “There is one exception,” he writes. Many researchers think the drug still should be tested to see if it could be given to groups of unexposed, healthy people to prevent them from coming down with the virus later, he writes — so-called pre-exposure prophylaxis. If effective, such a treatment might prove helpful to hospital workers, the story states.

A 6/8/20 story in The New York Times summarizes the replies of more than 500 epidemiologists (researchers who study epidemics) to a survey sent to about 6,000 of them about how soon they expect to return to air travel, handshakes, hugs, extended family visits, etc. “Their answers are not guidelines for the public,” the story warns. Here’s a snapshot: More than 50% (although not that much more than 50%) responded that they would do the following activities this summer: bring in mail without precautions this summer; see a doctor for a non-urgent appointment; or vacation overnight within driving distance. More than 50% (but not that much more) responded that they would do these activities later in the next year: send kids to school, camp or daycare; work in a shared office; or eat in a dine-in restaurant. Most say they will wait more than a year before they stop routinely wearing a face covering or before they attend a sporting event, concert or play. Replies depended on individual circumstances, the story states. It’s worth perusing the details of this piece.

COVID-19’s mortality rate is an “organic, fluid metric,” not a “fixed number that distills the true essence of the virus’s danger,” writes Dr. Clayton M. Dalton, an emergency resident at Massachusetts General Hospital / Brigham Women’s Hospital, at Scientific American (6/5/20). In this essay, he warns against “using any one estimate of mortality in shaping our response to the pandemic.” Slow testing and incomplete death data have complicated estimates of the true mortality rate of COVID-19 in the U.S. and beyond, Dalton writes. Even if researchers had complete, reliable data, mortality rates would vary regionally (e.g. some regions have older populations and older people are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19; e.g. hospitals in some regions can handle more patients, so people there get more care and are less likely to die) and individually (due to underlying conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure), Dalton writes. Besides, the mortality rate “doesn’t matter right now,” because experienced doctors have "faced wave after wave of COVID patients in their 30s, 50s, or 80s" for weeks, he writes. “Wherever the mortality rates may settle,” he concludes, “we have enough information to act responsibly, with carefully phased reopening and robust testing and contact tracing.”

A reader referred me to this helpful guide for evaluating the risk of spreading or getting infected with SARS-CoV-2 if you decide that you must travel by airplane. The piece, by Laurel Wamsey at NPR (5/15/20), quotes Dr. Henry Wu, a professor of infectious disease medicine at Emory University. He advises people deciding whether to fly or not to assess their own risk by considering their age, medical background, and “risk factors for severe complications." If you must fly, sit “wherever is most distant from other,” Wu says. Wipe down your seat-back tray and magazine poucy, your air vent (sounds like you should keep that on, especially if someone nearby coughs or sneezes), and your seat belt. Then discard the wipe cloth and use hand sanitizer. Even if you use a pen to press or touch buttons, be aware then that the pen should then be treated as contaminated—segregate it and then clean it.

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Read more about the coronavirus outbreak from Scientific American here. And read coverage from our international network of magazines here.