COVID19 update, August 24, 2020: rapid breathalyzer-type test; another drug target revealed?; statistical confusion; antibodies in breast milk

(1) Scientists at the Technion have developed a rapid breathalyzer-type test for COVID19 using “electronic nose” technology: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c05657

The proposed method uses a developed breath device comprised of a nanomaterial- based hybrid sensors array with multiplexed detection capabilities that can detect disease-specific biomarkers from exhaled breath, thus enabling rapid and accurate diagnosis. An exploratory clinical study with this approach was [carried out] in Wuhan, China during March 2020. The study cohort included 49 confirmed COVID-19 patients, 58 healthy controls and 33 non-COVID lung infection controls. When applicable, positive COVID-19 patients were sampled twice: during the active disease, and after recovery. Discriminant analysis of the obtained signals from the nanomaterial-based sensors achieved very good test discriminations between the different groups. The training and test set data exhibited, respectively, 94% and 76% accuracy in differentiating patients from controls as well as 90% and 95% accuracy in differentiating between patients with COVID-19 and patients with other lung infections. While further validation studies are needed, the results may serve as a base for technology that would lead to a reduction in number of unneeded confirmatory tests and lower the burden on the hospitals, while allowing individuals a screening solution that can be performed in PoC facilities. The proposed method can be considered as a platform that could be applied for any other disease infection[…]

(2) (H/t: Jolie L.) A group at Northwestern University has carried out computational modeling of the “spike protein” and the ACE2 receptor, and found a new vulnerability http://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c04798
Here is a press release in popular science language from Northwestern.

The group found that these polybasic cleavage sites, with their multiple protonated Arg (arginine) residues, play a major role in electrostatic attraction between the receptor-binding domain and the spike. They also found that, at least on the computer, the said sites can be “neutralized” by a Glu-Glu-Leu-Glu tetrapeptide (Glu=glutamate, Leu=leucine). Is this a potential route toward a therapeutic?

(2) Meanwhile in Israel, some statistical confusion. If you look at Worldometers, you see a sudden spike of 73 additional deaths on August 19: it turns out to be a statistical backlog of deaths at nursing homes that suddenly got dumped into the total. If you look at the official COVID19 dashboard instead, you don’t notice it unless you took a snapshot the day before, since the deaths are backfilled on the dates of death rather than all added up to the tally for August 19.

And how bad is unemployment here because of COVID19? The Employment Bureau (lishkat ha-ta`asuqa) which assists jobless with finding work) claims 20-21%, while the National Insurance Institute (bituach le’umi), which actually handles the paying out of unemployment benefits, has “only” 12%. The NII claims that their data are more accurate, since they see (mandatory) NII contributions come in and benefits go out, while many people who used to be unemployed and have meanwhile found work again don’t bother to update the employment bureau. Also, that many of those registered with the Employment Bureau don’t qualify for benefits anyhow, hence don’t really “count” as unemployed for statistical purposes.

(3) Dr. John Campbell discusses the rise in infections in France and Spain, not accompanied by the rise in mortality you might expect. In general, he sees signs everywhere that the virus is less deadly now, though he continues to be skeptical about a mutation toward a milder form.

A commenter from Spain points out that yes, there is a dramatic increase in cases among young people — but they generally don’t get so sick and very rarely die. “The older people know to watch out by now.” This jibes with what we see here.

(4) This research from Utrecht University in the Netherlands has Mrs. Arbel asking, “Breast milk — is there anything it can’t do?”

“The mother’s body makes antibodies that can neutralize the coronavirus,” explains Prof. Albert Heck. “The fact that these are also found in breast milk is probably to protect their babies from the virus. Ideally, we will find a lot of very strong antibodies against COVID in the breast milk. Then that milk could be used to protect not only babies, but also vulnerable COVID patients.” […] The researchers hope to administer the milk in the form of ice cubes. When a patient licks such an ice cube, the antibodies will directly reach the relevant places in the mouth and nose, killing the virus particles there. Heck emphasizes: “We’re not that far yet. But this is what we’re hoping for.”

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