We’re still learning about the virus’ toll on bodies

This week of March 13, 2022, we’re looking at how scientists are understanding the toll of COVID-19 on the body, and the progress in the vaccine drive

The average number of coronavirus infections continued to decline in recent days, while 19% of all COVID-19 dedicated beds in the country were currently filled. On the vaccine front, about 57% of the Philippines’ total population has been fully vaccinated against the virus .

Here’s what we’re watching this week of March 13, 2022:

COVID-19 and the brain

A large new study published in the journal Nature found that even mild coronavirus infections may cause changes in the brain – a significant finding that continues to shed light on the impact of the virus on our bodies. But whether these changes were long-term or reversible over time, it’s still too soon to tell.

  • Scientists in the United Kingdom discovered that, compared to individuals who did not get infected, a mild case of COVID-19 may cause tissue damage and greater loss of gray matter in areas of the brain related to smell, some parts of which were also related to other brain functions.
  • The study’s lead author, Gwenaëlle Douaud of the University of Oxford, told NBC News that the loss of brain volume observed in scans was equivalent to an extra year of normal aging.
  • The UK study is important because it is the first to compare brain scans before and after infections, addressing one of the key limitations studies had up until the new research was released.
    • England’s Biobank project – which tracks the health of some 500,000 people for about 15 years – has made this type of research possible because of its database of scans recorded before the pandemic, allowing for an opportunity to study the long-term effects of COVID-19 .
    • In particular, scientists evaluated the brain images of some 400 people who were infected with COVID-19 sometime between March 2020 and April 2021, and 384 others who did not get sick.
  • What they found: While people typically lose a tiny amount of gray matter as they age (about 0.2% each year), overall brain size in infected participants had shrunk between 0.2 and 2% in different brain regions in the three years between scans.
  • The study likewise looked at whether the virus impacted brain function and found that same link.
    • The New York Times reported: “People who had Covid also showed a greater decline than uninfected people on a cognitive test related to attention and efficiency in performing a complex task.”
    • But experts the Times Spoke to underscored that testing was rudimentary, so the study is “very limited in what it can say about whether the gray matter loss and tissue damage the Covid patients experienced their cognitive skills.”
  • “We don’t know that it actually means anything for the patient’s quality of life or function,” The Times said, quoting Dr. Benedict Michael, an associate professor of neurological infections at the University of Liverpool.
  • While findings are significant in understanding the disease better, experts caution that it’s still a “stretch” at the moment to conclude there are long-term implications for patients.
  • Now, more scientists look to building on the evidence generated to find out what exactly it means for patients – the vast majority of whom experienced mild COVID-19.
  • In the meantime, while we learn more about how COVID-19 affects the body, such findings reinforce the necessity of keeping transmission low and avoiding infection.
Fourth doses on the horizon?

Experts in the Philippines are looking at the possible of recommending another booster for senior citizens and moderate to severely immunocompromised individuals that may be administered around four months after the first booster dose. But it will still take a while to reach some consensus. It’s worth underscoring that at least 30% of the country’s population has yet to receive a single dose at all.

  • Health officials said the possible recommendation stems from the decrease in antibodies “seen in studies and their (vulnerable groups’) increased risk towards morbidities when infected with COVID-19.”
  • If any endorsement is given, it’s likely to be for specific groups only. “People who are young and healthy and don’t have risk factors will probably not benefit much from a fourth dose when faced with Omicron,” the Department of Health (DOH) said.
  • While millions have yet to be fully vaccinated, uptake of boosters in the country is also slow. Only 10.6 million booster shots – or 14.7% of the country’s target – has been administered. The DOH said the priority right now is still to reach unvaccinated seniors and those who are not boosted.
  • Expert panels will meet sometime in March to discuss available evidence and data on the matter.
Expanding access

Since vaccinations had slowed down in recent weeks, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said the government would be mounting a “Jabs in the Jobsite” program to bring doses closer to Filipinos.

  • The drive will start with the business process outsourcing industry, which is vulnerable to outbreaks and whose companies are among those pushing employees to return to office work.
  • Vaccinations in job sites come on top of similar efforts carried out in pharmacies and private clinics.
  • Such efforts are crucial to attaining wide vaccine coverage in the country and making sure doses do not go to waste. A Rappler investigation into the Philippines’ vaccine drive found that, a year into the program, the biggest hurdle in high uptake is Filipinos lack of access to shots.

In case you missed it: The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency approval for Pfizer COVID-19 pill, Paxlovid, which was found to be 89% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in clinical trials.

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– Rappler.com

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