Solving COVID: November 4, 2020
Pre-flight COVID testing, new research on immunity, and more
United Airlines offers free pre-flight coronavirus testing on some routes
United Airlines is trying out a plan to offer free COVID-19 tests to passengers heading abroad. From Nov. 16 to Dec. 11, United will offer rapid coronavirus tests to people boarding certain flights from the airline's Newark, New Jersey, hub to London's Heathrow airport. The Abbott ID Now rapid tests will be available for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday flights. Passengers who refuse a test will be moved to other flights to "guarantee that essentially everyone on board just tested negative for COVID-19." Still, travelers arriving in the U.K. will have to quarantine for 14 days when they arrive. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the airline industry, and without a government intervention, airlines are trying whatever they can to get passengers back on board.
New coronavirus study suggests T-cell immunity may last for at least 6 months
T-cell immunity against the coronavirus could last for at least six months after infection, a study from the U.K. Coronavirus Immunology Consortium suggests. The study, which is awaiting peer review, evaluated 100 health-care workers in the U.K. who had mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 cases in March and April and found that the defensive blood cells, which differ from antibodies, were present in all of them. The patients who experienced symptoms had T-cell levels that were at least 50 percent higher than the asymptomatic cases. The results are promising, especially given that other recent studies have suggested antibodies are waning among the general population, but not definitive. Fiona Watt, the executive chair of the U.K.'s Medical Research Council, was optimistic. "If natural reinfection with the virus can elicit a robust T-cell response, then this may mean that a vaccine could do the same," she said.
Slovakia tests two-thirds of its population
Slovakia tested two-thirds of its population for COVID-19 over the weekend. More than 40,000 medical workers, army personnel, and police were deployed to collect samples at around 5,000 testing sites. The effort utilized antigen tests, which give quick results, but are often less accurate than PCR tests, which require lab analysis. Just over 1 percent of the 3.6 million participants tested positive. The ambitious plan was not without its critics. While Prime Minister Igor Matovic said it would save "hundreds of lives" and "will be our road to freedom," President Zuzana Caputova called it "unfeasible," noting that there are not enough trained health workers to carry it out effectively. And the Slovak Association of General Practitioners warned that the "mass concentration of millions of people" at testing sites could in fact contribute to the coronavirus' spread. Participation was voluntary, but those who opted out will have to comply with more severe restrictions.
CureVac says vaccine candidate triggered immune response
CureVac said on Monday that its coronavirus vaccine candidate triggered an immune response during a phase 1 trial. "We are very encouraged by the interim Phase 1 data," CureVac CEO Franz-Werner Haas said. The company in a statement said that during the study, its vaccine candidate "was generally well tolerated across all tested doses," and it "induced strong binding and neutralizing antibody responses." CureVac said it will provide detailed data in "the coming weeks," but its chief technology officer, Mariola Fotin-Mleczek, said the initial data shows "a robust and highly efficient immune response." The company is planning to begin the final stage of testing for its vaccine candidate before the end of 2020.
AI can spot COVID-19 cases based on how people 'produce sound,' researchers find
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have published a paper suggesting artificial intelligence can recognize potential coronavirus cases based on how people sound — particularly how they sound when they produce a "forced-cough." The MIT team employed an AI model that was able to accurately identify 98.5 percent of people who were confirmed to have been infected by the coronavirus. The accuracy actually ticked up to 100 percent among people who were not displaying symptoms. "We think this shows that the way you produce sound changes when you have COVID, even if you're asymptomatic," Brian Subirana, the paper's co-author told PCMag. Now, researchers are working to build an app that uses the AI model. In theory, that could serve as a free, non-invasive way to pre-screen for COVID-19, though it would not itself be a diagnostic tool.