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Some medical societies feature sessions at their annual meetings that feel like they’re 24 hours long, yet few have the courage to schedule a session that actually runs all day and all night. But the five societies sponsoring the IDWeek conference had that courage. The first 24 hours of the meeting was devoted to the most pressing infectious-disease crisis of the last 100 years: the COVID-19 pandemic. They called it “COVID-19: Chasing the Sun.”
Fauci Predicts a Vaccine Answer in Mid-November
In the first segment, at 10 am Eastern time, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, began the day by noting that five of the six companies the US invested in to develop a vaccine are conducting phase 3 trials. He said, “We feel confident that we will have an answer likely in mid-November to the beginning of December as to whether we have a safe and effective vaccine”. He added he was “cautiously optimistic” that “we will have a safe and effective vaccine by the end of the year, which we can begin to distribute as we go into 2021.” He highlighted the COVID-19 Prevention Network website for more information on the trials.
Glaring Racial Health Disparities in US
Some of the most glaring health disparities surrounding COVID-19 in the United States were described by Carlos del Rio, MD, professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He pointed out that while white people have about 23 cases per 10,000 population, Blacks have about 62 cases per 10,000, and Latinos have 73 cases per 10,000. While whites don’t see a huge jump in cases until age 80, he said, “Among Blacks and Latinos you start seeing that huge increase at a younger age. In fact, starting at age 20, you start seeing a major, major change.”
Audrey Odom John, MD, PhD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is working on a new way of diagnosing COVID-19 infection in children by testing their breath. “We’re really taking advantage of a fundamental biological fact, which is that people stink,” she said. Breath shows the health of the body as a whole, “and it’s easy to see how breath volatiles might arise from a respiratory infection.” Testing breath is easy and inexpensive, which makes it particularly attractive as a potential test globally, she said.
Long-term Effects of COVID-19
Post-COVID illness threatens to overwhelm the health system in the United States, even if only 1% of the 8 million people who have been infected have some sort of long-term deficit, “which would be a very conservative estimate,” said John O’Horo, MD, MPH, with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Neurologic dysfunction is going to be a “fairly significant thing to keep an eye on,” he added. Preeti Malani, MD, chief health officer in infectious diseases at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said the emotional aspects of the illness are “striking” and may be the major long-term effect for most patients.
Challenging Cases in COVID-19: Through Fire and Water
In a case presented to panelists during an afternoon session, a Mexican-born woman, 42, presents to urgent care with fever, dyspnea, dry cough, and pleuritic pain, for over a week. Multiple family members have had recent respiratory illness as well. She is obese, on no medications, was not traveling. She’s a nonsmoker and lives in a multigenerational household in the Mission District of San Francisco. Her heart rate is 116, respiratory rate is 36, and her oxygen saturation on room air is 77%. She is admitted to a local hospital and quickly declines, is intubated and started on hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). One day later she is transferred to a hospital for consideration of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).
Panelists were asked a variety of questions about how they would treat this patient. For example, would they continue HCQ? Ravina Kullar, PharmD, MPH, an infectious disease expert from Newport Beach, California, answered that she would not continue the HCQ because of lack of evidence and potential harms. Asked whether she would start remdesivir, Kullar said she would steer her away from that if the patient developed renal failure. Co-moderator Peter Chin-Hong, MD, a medical educator with the University of California, San Francisco, noted that contact tracing will be important as the patient returns to her housing-dense community.
In-Hospital Infection Prevention
The CDC acknowledged aerosol spread of COVID-19 this month, but David Weber, MD, MPH, professor in infectious diseases at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said, “This does not change anything we need to do in the hospital,” as long as protective pandemic protocols continue to be followed.
There is no evidence, he noted, that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted far enough that a hospitalized patient could infect people in other rooms or corridors or floors. Opening windows in COVID-19 patients’ rooms is “not an option,” he said, and could be harmful as fungal elements in outside air may introduce new pathogens. The degree to which improved ventilation systems reduce transmission has not been identified and studies are needed to look at that, he said.
Preventing COVID Transmission in the Community
Mary-Margaret Fill, MD, deputy state epidemiologist in Tennessee, highlighted COVID-19’s spread in prisons. As of mid-October, she said, there are more than 147,000 cases among the US prison population and there have been 1246 deaths. This translates to a case rate of about 9800 cases per 100,000 people, she said, “double the highest case rate for any state in the country and over 3 times greater than our national case rate of about 2500 cases per 100,000 persons.”
Testing varies widely, she noted. For instance, some states test only new prisoners, and some test only when they are symptomatic. One of the strategies to fight this spread is having staff, who go in and out of the community, be assigned to work with only certain groups at a prison. Another is widespread testing of all prisoners. And when prisoners have to leave the prison for care or court dates, a third strategy would be quarantining them upon their return.
As the session stretched into the evening in the United States, Mary Marovich, MD, director of vaccine research, AIDS division, with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institutes of Health, said while each of the government-funded vaccine studies has its own trial, there are standardized objectives for direct comparisons. The studies are being conducted within the same clinical trial networks, and collaborative laboratories apply the same immunoassays and define the infections in the same way. They are all randomized, placebo-controlled trials and all but one have a 30,000-volunteer sample size. She said that while a vaccine is the goal to end the pandemic, monoclonal antibodies, such as those in convalescent plasma, “may serve as a critical bridge.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly During COVID-19 in Latin America
Latin America and the Caribbean are currently the regions hardest hit by COVID-19. Gustavo D. Lopardo, of the Asociacion Panamericana de Infectologia, noted that even before the pandemic Latin America suffered from widespread poverty and inequality. While overcrowding and poverty are determining factors in the spread of the virus, diabetes and obesity — both highly prevalent — are worsening COVID outcomes.
The countries of the region have dealt with asynchronous waves of transmission within their borders by implementing different containment strategies, with dissimilar results. The presenters covered the spectrum of the pandemic, from the “ugly” in Peru, which has the highest mortality rate in the region, to the “good” in Uruguay, where testing is “winning against COVID-19.” Paradoxically, Chile has both the highest cumulative incidence and the lowest case fatality rate of COVID-19 in the region.
In the social and political turmoil imposed by COVID-19, Clóvis Arns da Cunha, MD, president of the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases and professor at the Federal University of Paraná, pointed out that “fake news [has become] a public health problem in Brazil” and elsewhere.
Diagnostics and Therapeutics in Latin America
Eleven of the 15 countries with the highest death rate in the world are located in Latin America or the Caribbean. Arns de Cunha pointed out that tests are hard to come by and inadequate diagnostic testing is a major problem. Latin American countries have not been able to compete with the US and Europe in purchasing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kits from China and South Korea. The PCR test is the best diagnostic tool in the first week of symptoms, but its scale-up has proved to be a challenge in Latin America.
Furthermore, the most sensitive serological markers, CLIA and ECLIA, which perform best after 2 weeks of symptom onset, are not widely available in Latin America where many patients do not have access to the public health system. The detection of silent hypoxemia in symptomatic patients with COVID-19 can save lives; hence, Arns da Cunha praised the program that distributed 100,000 digital oximeters to hundreds of cities in Brazil, targeting vulnerable populations.
The COVID-19 Experience in Japan
Takuya Yamagishi, MD, PhD, chief of the Antimicrobial Resistance Research Center at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan, played an instrumental role in the epidemiological investigation that took place on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship in February 2020. That COVID-19 outbreak is the largest disease outbreak involving a cruise ship to date, with 712 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths.
The ship-based quarantine prompted a massive public health response with unique challenges. In those early days, investigators uncovered important facts about COVID-19 epidemiology, generating hot debates regarding the public health strategy at the time. Notably, the majority of asymptomatically infected persons remained asymptomatic throughout the course of the infection, transmission from asymptomatic cases was almost as likely as transmission from symptomatic cases, and isolation of passengers in their cabins prevented inter-cabin transmission but not intra-cabin transmission.
Swift Response in Asia Pacific Region
Infectious-disease experts from Taiwan, Singapore, and Australia, who have been at the forefront of clinical care, research, and policy-making, spoke about their experiences.
Taiwan was one of the first countries to adopt a swift response to COVID-19, shortly after they recognized an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown etiology in China and long before the WHO declared a public health emergency, said Ping-Ing Lee, MD, PhD, from the National Taiwan University Children’s Hospital.
The country began onboard health checks on flights from Wuhan as early as December 31, 2019. Lee attributed Taiwan’s success in prevention and control of COVID-19 to the rigorous use of face masks and environmental disinfection procedures. Regarding the country’s antilockdown stance, he said, “Lockdown may be effective; however, it is associated with a tremendous economic loss.”
In his presentation on remdesivir vs corticosteroids, David Lye, MBBS, said, “I think remdesivir as an antiviral seems to work well given early, but steroids will need to be studied further in terms of its conflicting evidence in multiple well-designed RCTs as well as [their] potential side effects.” He is director of the Infectious Disease Research and Training Office, National Centre for Infectious Diseases, Singapore.
Allen C. Cheng, MBBS, PhD, of Monash University in Australia, noted, “Control is possible. We seemed to have controlled this twice at the moment with fairly draconian action, but every day does matter.”
China Past the First Wave
China has already passed the first wave, explained Lei Zhou, MD, of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but there are still some small-scale resurgences. So far a total of four waves have been identified. She also mentioned that contact tracing is intense and highlighted the case of Xinfadi Market in Beijing, the site of an outbreak in June 2020.
Gui-Qiang Wang, MD, from the Department of Infectious Disease, Peking University First Hospital, emphasized the importance of a chest CT for the diagnosis of COVID-19. “In the early stage of the disease, patients may not show any symptoms; however, on CT scan you can see pneumonia. Also, early intervention of high-risk groups and monitoring of warning indicators for disease progression is extremely important,” he said.
“Early antiviral therapy is expected to stop progression, but still needs evaluation,” he said. “Convalescent plasma is safe and effective, but its source is limited; steroid therapy needs to explore appropriate population and timing; and thymosin α is safe, and its effect on outcomes needs large-sample clinical trial.”
Time to Call for an “Arab CDC”?
The eastern Mediterranean is geographically, politically, economically, and religiously a very distinct and sensitive region, and “COVID-19 is an added insult to this already frail region of the world,” said Zaid Haddadin, MD, Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Poor healthcare and poor public health services are a consequence of weak and fragile governments and infrastructure, the result of war and regional conflicts in many countries. Millions of war refugees live in camps with high population densities and shared facilities, which makes social distancing and community mitigation very challenging. Moreover, the culture includes frequent large social gatherings. Millions of pilgrims visit holy sites in different cities in these countries. There is also movement due to trade and tourism. Travel restrictions are challenging, and there is limited comprehension of precautionary measures.
Najwa Khuri-Bulos, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Jordan, was part of a task force headed by the country’s Ministry of Health. A lockdown was implemented, which helped flatten the curve, but the loosening of restrictions has led to a recent increase in cases. She said, “No country can succeed in controlling spread without the regional collaboration. Perhaps it is time to adopt the call for an Arab CDC.”
Africa Is “Not Out of the Woods Yet”
The Africa CDC has three key pillars as the foundation for their COVID-19 strategy: preventing transmission, preventing deaths, and preventing social harm, according to Raji Tajudeen, MBBS, FWACP, MPH, head of the agency’s Public Health Institutes and Research Division. Africa, with 1.5 million cases of COVID-19, accounts for 5% of global cases. With a recovery rate of 83% and a case fatality rate of 2.4%, the African continent has fared much better than the rest of the world. “Significant improvements have been made, but we are not out of the woods yet,” he cautioned.
Richard Lessells, PhD, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, agreed. “Unfortunately, South Africa has not been spared from the worst effects of this pandemic despite what you might read in the press and scientific coverage.” He added, “Over 50% of cases and up to two thirds of the deaths in the African region are coming from South Africa.” A bigger challenge for South Africa has been maintaining essential health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since it is also at the heart of the HIV pandemic. On the brighter side, HIV itself has not emerged as a risk factor for COVID-19 infection or severe disease in South Africa.
Dimie Ogoina, MBBS, FWACP, president of the Nigerian Infectious Diseases Society, stated that COVID-19 has significantly affected access to healthcare in Nigeria, particularly immunizations and antenatal care. Immunization uptake is likely to have dropped by 50% in the country.
Diagnostic Pitfalls in COVID-19
Technical errors associated with the SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic pipeline are a major source of variations in diagnosis, explained Jim Huggett, PhD, senior lecturer, analytical microbiology, University of Surrey, Guildford, England. He believes that PCR assays are currently too biased for a single cutoff to be broadly used, and false-positive signals are most likely due to contamination.
Dana Wolf, MD, Clinical Virology Unit, Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Israel, presented a large-scale data analysis of more than 133,000 pooled samples. Such a pooling strategy appeared to be highly efficient for a wide range of prevalence rates (< 1% to 6%). “Our empirical evidence strongly projects on the feasibility and benefits of pooling in the current pandemic setting, to enhance continued surveillance, control, and community reopening,” she said.
Corine Geurts van Kessel, MD, PhD, Department of Virology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands, discussing antibodies (Ab) testing for SARS-CoV-2, pointed out that disease severity can affect testing accuracy. “Reinfection cases tell us that we cannot rely on immunity acquired by natural infection to confer herd immunity,” she said.
Misinformation in the First Digital Pandemic
The world is not only facing a devastating pandemic, but also an alarming “infodemic” of
misinformation. Between January and March 2020, a new COVID-19–related tweet appeared on Twitter every 45 milliseconds. Müge Çevik, MD, MSc, MRCP(UK), an infectious disease clinician, scientist, and science communicator said, “The greatest challenge for science communication is reaching the audience.”
People have always been skeptical of science reporting by journalists and would rather have scientists communicate with them directly, she noted. Science communication plays a dual role. “On one hand is the need to promote science to a wide audience in order to inform and educate and inspire the next generation of scientists, and on the other hand there is also a need to engage effectively in public dialogue,” she added. Çevik and her colleagues think, “The responsibility of academics should not end with finding the truth. It should end after communicating it.”
Treatment in the ICU
Matteo Bassetti, MD, with the University of Genoa in Italy, who was asked about when to use remdesivir in the intensive care unit and for how long, said, “In the majority of cases, 5 days is probably enough.” However, if there is high viremia, he said, physicians may choose to continue the regimen beyond 5 days. Data show it is important to prescribe this drug for patients with oxygen support in an early phase, within 10 days of the first symptoms, he added. “In the late phase, there is a very limited role for remdesivir, as we know that we are already out of the viremic phase.” He also emphasized that there is no role for hydroxychloroquine or lopinavir-ritonavir.
Breaking the Chains of Transmission
During the wrap-up session, former US CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, said, “We’re not even halfway through it” about the pandemic trajectory. “And we have to be very clear that the risk of explosive spread will not end with a vaccine.” He is now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives.
Different parts of the world will have very different experiences, Frieden said, noting that Africa, where 4% of the population is older than 65, has a very different risk level than Europe and the United States, where 10% to 20% of people are in older age groups.
“We need a one-two punch,” he noted, first preventing spread, and when it does happen, boxing it in. Mask wearing is essential. “States in the US that mandated universal mask-wearing experienced much more rapid declines (in cases) for every 5 days the mandate was in place.”
Michael Ryan, MD, executive director for the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, added, “We need to collectively recommit to winning this game. We know how to break the chains of transmission. We need recommitment to a scientific, societal, and political strategy, and an alliance — a contract — between those entities to try to move us forward.”
Robert Finn and freelancer Marcia Frellick contributed from the United States; freelancer Kara Gilbert from Australia; and Pavankumar Kamat, Sarfaroj Khan, and Deepa Koli from India.
Yves Goulnik from France and Neeta Shah from the United Kingdom also contributed to this article.