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Climate might help predict COVID-19 spread, study says

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June 11 (UPI) — SARS-CoV-2 behaves like a “seasonal” virus that spreads more rapidly in cooler temperatures and drier, less humid climates, according to an analysis published Thursday by JAMA Network Open.

Instead of thriving in the tropical environs of southeast Asia, as expected, the new coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, exploded in eight cities located “on a narrow band, roughly on the 30 degrees north to 50 degrees north corridor” latitude, the international team of researchers observed.

Temperatures in these cities ranged from 41 to 51 degrees during the period of highest virus spread, with relative humidity readings between 44 and 84 percent, they said.

“We think the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a more difficult time spreading in conditions with higher temperature and humidity,” study co-author Dr. Mohammad Sajadi, an associate professor in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Institute of Human Virology, told UPI.

Based on the findings, “we believe that the study of the climate can help predict outbreaks and/or hot spots, and that this factor should be incorporated into future epidemiologic models,” Sajadi said. “However, we think further work should be done to refine the climate model.”

Although much of the United States already is experiencing warmer, more humid summer weather, most of the country — Alaska being the exception — lies within the “narrow band” identified by Sajadi and his colleagues.

For their study, the researchers examined climate data from 50 cities worldwide with and without “substantial community spread” of COVID-19.

Eight cities with substantial spread of COVID-19 as of March 10 — Wuhan, China; Tokyo; Daegu, South Korea; Qom, Iran; Milan; Paris; Seattle; and Madrid — were compared with 42 cities with no confirmed cases or low community spread.

All of the eight cities with substantial community spread as of March 10 were located between 30 and 50 degrees north latitude, which roughly equates to the southern and northern borders of the continental United States, the authors found. These cities “had consistently similar weather patterns,” they said.

The analysis also revealed “a lack of substantial community establishment in expected locations” based on geographic proximity, according to the researchers. For example, while Wuhan, China — at 30.8 degrees north — had more than 80,000 cases as March 10, Hanoi, Vietnam — 21.2 degrees north — had 31 cases.

“In studying the earliest stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease did not spread like was initially predicted,” Sajadi said.

Instead, “the distribution of significant community outbreaks along restricted latitude, temperature and humidity were consistent with the behavior of a seasonal respiratory virus,” he said.

“We think the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a more difficult time spreading in conditions with higher temperature and humidity, [but] the best way to test this hypothesis is to study it in the laboratory where these conditions can be controlled,” Sajadi said.



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Study: News media, influencers can double efficacy of COVID-19 prevention messages

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July 8 (UPI) — People who see educational messages on social media and in the news about the importance of hand-washing and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are up to twice as likely to engage in the practices, according to a study published Wednesday by JAMA Network Open.

Those who viewed the messaging, which included a video and a newspaper article with “infographics,” were up to 50 percent more likely to avoid touching their face — which can also limit virus transmission — the researchers found.

“[Our] findings suggest that an evidence-based, large-scale public health campaign, distributed by a news media platform and social influencer, was associated with better personal hygiene,” the authors wrote.

More than 17,000 people participated in the study, which was conducted in the Netherlands in March and April. Researchers at VU University in the Netherlands, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and Duke University contributed to the new paper.

Roughly half of the participants were shown an article — with graphics — from a major newspaper with information on hand-washing, social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures, a video produced by a social media influencer that provided guidance on these same measures or both, the researchers said.

The rest of the participants did not see these messages, they said.

All study participants were surveyed on their own hand-washing, social distancing and face-touching habits, according to the researchers. Those who saw one or both of the messaging platforms were surveyed before and after they did so, the researchers said.

Participants who saw the newspaper article and social media video were more than twice as likely to engage in recommended hand-washing practices, while those who saw the social media video alone were 31 percent more likely to do so, the study found.

Participants with COVID-19 symptoms were 10 percent more likely to practice social distancing after seeing both the social media video and the newspaper article, according to the researchers.

Participants who saw the article were 30 percent more likely to reduce face-touching, while those who saw both messages were 50 percent more likely to do so, the researchers said.

Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, believes similar outreach efforts can improve compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing in the United States, which is currently seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country.

“For people who are younger, they probably need to be hearing this, not just from government officials but from people who are in their circles, their influencers, people who they respect,” said McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President George W. Bush.

McClellan, who was not part of the Netherlands study, was speaking to reporters on a conference call June 30.

“What [Americans] do with their actions, for the next few months, for the next six months, really is going to save lives if they take these steps,” he said. “The models show that [if] we get quite high rates of people following basic steps — distancing, using a mask, washing hands, staying home — for the next six months, we would contain the pandemic.”



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Probiotics may help ease depression, study shows

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Probiotic supplements might help ease depression symptoms in some people, a new research review suggests.

Researchers found that across seven small clinical trials, various probiotics seemed to improve symptoms in patients with clinical depression — at least in the short term.

The studies build on a growing research interest in the role of gut health — specifically, the balance of bacteria dwelling there — and brain health.

But experts stressed that the probiotic trials had a number of limitations, and it’s too soon to draw any conclusions.

For one, a “placebo effect” cannot be ruled out, according to Sanjay Noonan, the lead author on the research review.

And, he said, besides being small, the trials did not look at the longer term: All lasted about two to three months.

According to Noonan, “no definitive statements can be made” on whether people with depression stand to benefit from probiotics.

“It would be conjecture to try and suggest anything about the long-term efficacy of probiotic therapy,” he said.

Noonan and his colleagues at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England reported the findings July 6 in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast that naturally dwell in the body. Probiotic supplements are marketed as a way to restore a healthier balance of good bacteria.

The digestive system, in particular, hosts a vast array of bacteria and other microbes — known as the “gut microbiome.” And those organisms are believed to do more than just aid in digestion.

Research suggests the microbes are involved in everything from immune defenses to producing vitamins, anti-inflammatory compounds, and even chemicals that influence the brain.

Meanwhile, a number of studies have linked the makeup of the gut microbiome to the risks of various health conditions. These include brain-based conditions like Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

In a 2019 study, researchers found that people with depression showed differences in specific gut bacteria, versus those without depression. Levels of two types of bacteria — Coprococcus and Dialister — were reported to be “consistently depleted” in people with depression.

But none of that proves a lack of those bacteria, or any others, actually helps cause depression. And for now, no one knows if any probiotics can help treat it.

“It’s important to stress that this area of research is in an extremely early phase,” Noonan said.

He said the point of this review was to look at the existing evidence on probiotics, and not to offer answers.

The trials in the review each contained fewer than 100 people. And they most often tested any of three probiotic strains: L. acidophilus, L. casaei and B. bifidum. One trial tested a probiotic combined with a “prebiotic” — compounds that promote the growth of probiotics.

On average, the review found, study patients’ depression symptoms improved over two to three months. Some trials, however, did not include a comparison group that took inactive supplements, to help account for the placebo effect. (That’s the phenomenon in which people feel better simply because they are receiving treatment and believe it will work.)

Another issue is the trials give no clues on which bacterial strains might be helpful, according to John Cryan, a professor at University College Cork in Ireland.

“There is a tendency in the field to ‘lump’ all commercially available strains into the same category independent of the level of evidence there is,” Cryan told the nonprofit Science Media Centre.

But, he added, “we know that strains really matter, and this review is not able to identify what it is about specific strains that render them with beneficial effects.”

Kevin Whelan, a professor at King’s College London, made similar points. “Probiotics often contain different strains of bacteria, and we do not know if the supplements, sachets and fermented milks you find on supermarket shelves will work,” he told SMC.

Whelan also stressed that most patients in the trials were taking antidepressants.

“So it is crucial that probiotics are seen as complementary to standard treatments recommended by your doctor,” he said, “and not as an alternative.”

More information

The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has more on probiotics.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Many COVID-19 hot spots affect areas around state borders, experts say

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July 8 (UPI) — Many current COVID-19 hotspots across the country are in areas along state borders because different governments have taken different approaches to contain spread of the new coronavirus, the experts behind the U.S. COVID Atlas said Wednesday.

This includes regions in Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as Louisiana and Mississippi, which are effectively separated by the Mississippi River, they said.

Parts of southern Arizona and California have also been similarly impacted, according to the researchers.

“With a patchwork of policies across the country, it’s not surprising to see hot spots along state borders,” Marynia Kolak, a member of the team that developed the atlas, said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday that was hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In some states, “there have been a lot of mixed messages” from officials, said Kolak, who is assistant director for health informatics at the University of Chicago’s Center for Spatial Data Science.

As a result, the new coronavirus has spread even in areas of states with strict social distancing and mask-wearing measures because they border on states that have taken a less stringent approach, Kolak said.

Kolak and her colleagues developed the U.S. COVID Atlas in March, and the tool has been tracking confirmed cases of the virus across the country since.

This week, they added new “county-level data” for the pandemic that developed out of a partnership with County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which tracks health and socioeconomic trends for all U.S. counties, she said.

With the new data, the atlas doesn’t necessarily identify counties at risk of an outbreak, but rather those that might be particularly vulnerable should one occur.

This could be due to high levels of poverty, poor overall health and lack of healthcare infrastructure, said Marjory Givens, deputy director of County Health Rankings and Roadmaps.

The county-level data highlights “underlying health inequities,” Givens said.

That includes differences in life expectancy and prevalence of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and excessive drug and alcohol use, all of which have been linked with increase risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19, Givens said.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, life expectancy varied across the United States by up to 40 years because of differences in overall health and access to healthcare services, said Givens, who also is associate director of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The pandemic has served to underscore many of these differences in “Native American and segregated urban communities,” as well as in the so-called “Black Belt,” or poor, rural communities in the south with populations that have a majority of black people, Givens said.

The U.S. COVID Atlas is a free, open-source tool that is updated daily. In addition to historical data on the pandemic, it includes resources for local governments as they plan outbreak responses or take steps to improve overall health in the local communities, Kolak said.

With the new data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, the atlas “provides a more detailed landscape of the disease,” with information “previously hidden” by the focus on the national impact of the pandemic and its effects in large metropolitan areas, said Kolak, who worked on a similar tool for opioid epidemic.

“COVID-19 is a national story with a local experience and each hot spot has its own story,” she said.



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