BY NANCY LAPID
The following is a brief roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID–19, the illness caused by the virus.
Statins may help protect frail older people from severe COVID–19 symptoms
Widely-used cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may be associated with substantially fewer symptoms in older, frail COVID–19 patients, a small study suggests. Among 154 coronavirus patients at two nursing homes, those who took a statin, such as Lipitor, were nearly three times more likely to be free of symptoms during their infection than those who did not, researchers in Belgium found.
There was also slight trend toward lower risks for lengthy hospital stays and death that was not statistically significant. The study was not randomized, so more formal trials are needed to definitively prove that statins affect outcomes.
“In the current absence of other valuable therapies and considering the benefit-risk balance, an older person living in a nursing home could consider taking a statin if at high COVID–19 infection risk,” the authors advised.
The study, reported on Friday on the medRxiv website, has not yet been peer-reviewed.
COVID–19 is not just a respiratory disease
The desperate need of severely ill coronavirus patients for mechanical ventilators to help them breathe had led many people to think of COVID–19 primarily as a respiratory disease, at least in adults. But among nearly 5,500 coronavirus patients in the largest New York health system, more than one in three hospitalized COVID–19 patients developed acute kidney injuries, and nearly 15% required dialysis, researchers reported on Thursday in the medical journal Kidney International.
Other research teams have reported that the virus can infect cells in the small intestine. And on Wednesday, researchers reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that autopsies of 27 people who died of COVID–19 showed the virus in tissues of 17 hearts, 17 livers, 8 brains and the kidneys of 13 people.
There have also been reports of the virus causing blood clots that can lead to strokes.
Convalescent plasma is safe but not conclusively proven to help
Researchers around the world are studying whether hospitalized coronavirus patients can be helped by infusions of blood plasma from people who have recovered from the virus, so-called convalescent plasma.
It is not yet clear whether or to what extent convalescent plasma provides benefit, but a large study shows the treatment is safe. U.S. researchers analyzed data from 5,000 hospitalized adults with severe or life-threatening coronavirus infections who received the treatment as part of a U.S. FDA Expanded Access Program for convalescent plasma for COVID–19 patients.
Fewer than 1% of patients had any serious adverse effects in the first four hours after transfusion, researchers found. The findings, published on Thursday on the medRxiv website, have not yet been peer-reviewed.
Flu data can help coronavirus case estimates; less reliable for deaths
One way to get a better sense of how the coronavirus spread in the United States, researchers suggest, is to look at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on the number of people with flu-like symptoms and estimate how many of them were actually diagnosed with the flu.
The ones who were not may have had coronavirus infections instead. Researchers looked at the number of prescriptions for oseltamivir, an antiviral specifically used to treat influenza. According to their report on Friday in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, when they compared the CDC-reported flu-like illness levels with their estimate of actual flu diagnoses based on oseltamivir prescriptions, they concluded that by April 4 there were already more than 2.5 million coronavirus cases in the United States.
On the other hand, flu mortality estimates are not a helpful tool for comparing the deadliness of the flu and the coronavirus, a separate report says. Most people do not realize that CDC numbers for influenza deaths are just estimates, whereas COVID–19 deaths numbers are actual counts, Dr. Jeremy Faust of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told Reuters.
Writing in JAMA Internal Medicine on Thursday, he and a coauthor say that between the 2013-2014 and 2018-2019 flu seasons, the estimated annual number of flu deaths ranged from 23,000 to 61,000 – but over the same period, the yearly number of counted influenza deaths was between 3,448 and 15,620. In contrast, during just the week ending April 21, 2020, there were 15,455 U.S. COVID–19 deaths reported. The reported number of U.S. coronavirus-related deaths from the previous week, ending April 14, was 14,478.