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Global Science TV: The lessons and unknowns after a year with COVID-19

Science has made great strides in expanding our understanding of COVID-19, but there is still a lot we don't know. In the latest Global Science TV episode, epidemiologist and infectious disease control expert Mary-Louise Mclaws speaks about the lessons and unknowns a year into the pandemic.

“As vaccines become available around the world, the rate of infection will start to go down, but experts warn the pandemic won’t end with a bang. So don’t grow complacent. COVID is likely to be with us for a long time to come.”

Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.

Nuala Hafner: So, what do we know now that we didn’t know when COVID-19 was first reported and what are the key things we still don’t understand to find out? We sat down with professor Mary-Louise Mclaws. She’s a leading epidemiologist who sits on the World Health Organization’s expert panel for responding to COVID-19. That panel had its first meeting in February, 2020.

Mary-Louise Mclaws: We were called there to share what we knew and what we didn’t know and what should be the roadmap for research that needed to be accelerated fast.

Nuala Hafner: At that point, some countries were convinced they were dealing with something similar to influenza, as it turned out, there was a key difference.

Mary-Louise Mclaws: The serial interval.

Nuala Hafner: That refers to the time between symptoms appearing in a primary case and the onset of symptoms in secondary cases. For COVID-19 it’s estimated to be between four and eight days. Countries that have been through the SARS outbreak, took a more cautious approach, implementing strict public health measures. They knew what this could be, and weren’t willing to take any risks. And while those countries still suffered outbreaks, it was clear that swift and unified action was critical in preventing something like this:

[Tonight, the COVID crisis and fears that millions more Americans may have now been exposed. Our nation continues to close in on half a million fatalities.]

Nuala Hafner: All some vaccines are now being rolled out. We haven’t really seen a major breakthrough on the treatment front.

Mary-Louise Mclaws: The vaccine has been very much the favourite child here, perfectly understandable, but at the same time, the therapeutics have had a really tough time.

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Nuala Hafner: Many have so far proved ineffective, but some antibody treatments such as Regeneron have shown promise in preventing severe cases of COVID-19. Clinical trials continue for many other treatments. And that leads us to the next thing. We still don’t really have a proper understanding of it.

Mary-Louise Mclaws: Why some people get severe COVID and others don’t.

Nuala Hafner: A recent study in Nature suggested genes could play a role. Scientists scan the DNA of patients in more than 200 intensive care units across the United Kingdom. They found some key genetic differences with healthy people, including a gene called TYK2. If that gene is faulty, it messes up the immune system, increasing the likelihood of patients developing lung inflammation. Knowing that will allow researchers to hone in on treatments, but there could be other reasons for COVID impacting people in different ways. That research is ongoing right around the world. Scientists also want to better understand the longer term effects of contracting COVID-19.

Mary-Louise Mclaws: And that’s interesting because in February, no one talked about that. And then we had another virtual meeting in the beginning of July and no one talked about long COVID. And it wasn’t until, I think, a physician in the UK who was a bike rider fit, man, who wasn’t hospitalized, but said, I couldn’t find a self-help group because I wasn’t feeling great. And I wanted to know, am I the only person?

Nuala Hafner: And Austrian studies showed that, well, over half of those who contract COVID-19 continue to have symptoms three months later, even after the virus is no longer detected in their body. That could include things such as difficulty sleeping, headaches, fatigue, and shortness of breath. As vaccines become available around the world, the rate of infection will start to go down, but experts warn the pandemic won’t end with a bang. So don’t grow complacent. COVID is likely to be with us for a long time to come.

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