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Science

The Filtrate for 2020.8.20

Another week has come and gone, so it’s time to see what the Turbid Plaque news feed dragged in.

The color of COVID-19

As everyone should already know, the ongoing SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic has been hitting certain racial and ethnic groups a lot harder than others in the US. In particular, Black and Latinx individuals seem to suffer disproportionate rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection and worse complications of COVID-19 than white folks.

Two reports in MMWR now help catalog the extent of this disparity. One study looked at COVID-19 rates in hard-hit counties across the US, and broke those numbers down by race and ethnicity. Across the first five months of the pandemic, almost all of the areas surveyed had disproportionate numbers of cases among minority groups. In another analysis, CDC researchers took a closer look, focusing only on workplace outbreaks in Utah from March to June. Over half the COVID-19 cases were in workers in blue collar industries, and 73% of them were Hispanic or non-white.

Together, these reports show a clear disparity in COVID-19 burden, and suggest that differences in employment could be a major cause of it. In other words, it’s not a biological difference but a byproduct of structural racism. Is 2020 really trying to drive home a point here?

A diet of germs

While rich countries can pour arbitrary amounts of money and scientists into tracking and controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2, it’s been harder to observe how the pandemic is affecting the poor world, where most of the global population lives. One of the problems is that poor countries also tend to have high rates of other infectious diseases, and nobody knows how those pathogens are going to interact.

For example, helminths (parasitic worms) are very common in poor countries, and they can have profound effects on host immune systems. Is that good news or bad news for folks coinfected with worms and SARS-CoV-2? A vast accidental experiment is now testing that question. A brief viewpoint article in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases is part of an ongoing discussion between virologists and parasitologists speculating about the outcome.

Summer vacation flu past

Another superinfection problem now looms over the start of the school year in the US. While many districts are keeping instruction online, some are pressing ahead with plans to bring kids and teachers back into real classrooms. As happens every year, though, the Fall semester will coincide with the start of flu season. So what will happen when students start getting coinfected with influenza and SARS-CoV-2? Unlike the helminth debate, nobody thinks that will end well.

To get ahead of the problem, some school districts are mandating flu vaccination for returning students. A new analysis that looked at school-based flu vaccination in past years provides further support for that idea, even in the absence of a co-circulating pandemic respiratory virus. The study found that school-based vaccination in northern California decreased influenza virus infection and illness-related school absences significantly.

That’s all the science news for this week’s issue, but anyone who’s teaching a course online this Fall should also check out Andrew Thaler’s excellent guide to turning a home office into a Zoom classroom. Andrew has a lot of experience with this sort of thing, and I especially liked his idea of sticking googly eyes to the webcam.