A largely empty Times Square in late May.
A largely empty Times Square in late May.
Photo: Getty Images

Here are some of the latest scientific developments around covid-19, including insights about the first major outbreak in Wuhan, China, a raft of hydroxychloroquine treatment trials, and steady progress in some but not all areas of the U.S.

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Wuhan’s outbreak

A crucial part of fending off covid-19 is pinning down how many people in a country or region have already been infected by the coronavirus, in order to figure out how susceptible the rest of the population might be to later outbreaks. A new study in Nature Medicine this week is the latest to suggest that we’ve only seen a glimpse of the pandemic’s full strength, even in the first places where it struck.

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Researchers in China looked at blood samples from over 16,000 people collected during the pandemic, including residents of Wuhan, China, where the first reported cases of covid-19 emerged late last year. Though Wuhan was the epicenter of the pandemic for over a month, only around 3 to 4 percent of the city’s population was estimated to carry antibodies specific to the coronavirus, which are indicative of surviving a past infection.

The results mirror findings taken from other hard-hit countries, including France and Spain. Some areas in these countries, including in the U.S., have reported rates of covid-19 seroprevalence higher than single digits—around 20 percent in New York City, for instance. But overall, it’s becoming clear that only a tiny fraction of the world’s population has been exposed to the coronavirus so far.

While that’s encouraging in the sense that we were able to stop its spread from going completely out of control, it also means that the risk of future massive outbreaks is still very real. Until an effective vaccine or treatment is found, communities will have to remain vigilant and likely keep at least some social distancing measures in effect.

The good and bad of hydroxychloroquine research

This week, scientists retracted the results of a influential study published in the Lancet in May, following allegations that the data they used may have been fabricated by the company that supplied it. That observational study found no evidence that hydroxychloroquine was effective at preventing death from covid-19 in hospitalized patients.

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The question of whether hydroxychloroquine can help treat covid-19 is still unanswered. It’s frustrating, but figuring this out will require lots of trials, preferably involving different groups of scientists studying large groups of volunteers over time, and determining where the overall evidence falls.

We did get results this week from two new studies of hydroxychloroquine, both of which were randomized, controlled, and double-blinded trials.

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The first study, published Wednesday in the New England of Medicine, tested whether taking hydroxychloroquine after a potential exposure to the virus could prevent infection from happening. Notably, President Trump said in mid-May that he was taking the drug for exactly that purpose. However, the authors found no significant difference in suspected cases or confirmed infection rates between people who took hydroxychloroquine and those who didn’t.

The second study is from part of the UK’s massive RECOVERY trial, intended to test several potential covid-19 treatments in people with severe covid-19. On Friday, an independent board of researchers monitoring the trial reviewed and asked for the initial results of the hydroxychloroquine arm to be revealed, which involved over 1,500 people who were randomly assigned to take the drug. The study found no significant difference in the rate of death between those on the drug and a control group, with about a quarter dying in either group. The board also recommended that the hydroxychloroquine portion of the trial be ended early, given the lack of success, which the authors agreed to do.

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No single study should be taken as the final word, especially since other researchers haven’t had the opportunity to look over the data from the UK trial yet. But, if accurate, these studies seem to suggest that hydroxychloroquine may not help people before they get sick from covid-19 or once they become severely sick. The data from other large trials of hydroxychloroquine should be out soon, which should provide more guidance.

New York’s reprieve

Closing out with some good news.

On Friday afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that there had been 42 reported covid-19 deaths the day before—the lowest daily death toll seen in eight weeks. New York City reported zero confirmed deaths for Wednesday, though there were three probable deaths.

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Both tallies are a far step down from the peak of the outbreak in early April, which saw over 500 people in the city and over 700 people statewide die every day. Coupled with other indicators, such as a low positive test rate (only around 2 percent of tests in the state are coming back positive), it’s a good sign that the formerly raging outbreak has truly calmed in New York. It also suggests that the state and New York City are relatively safe to begin reopening, with a limited reopening in the city planned to start on June 8.

Of course, the risk of future outbreaks is ever-present, and several states are trending in the opposite direction, with cases and positive rates increasing over time. The danger isn’t over, and there may yet be future waves of illness, especially if we’re not doing everything we can to prevent them. But for now, New York seems to have finally earned a reprieve.

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As of June 5, there have been over 375,000 confirmed cases and nearly 25,000 confirmed deaths in New York State, with just 1,000 new confirmed cases reported Thursday, according to its department of health. Worldwide, it’s likely that we’ll reach 400,000 confirmed deaths within the next few days.

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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