COVID19 update, June 7, 2020: Do-it-yourself COVID-19 tests found to be more accurate as well as comfortable; Israeli study confirms protective effect of smoking?!; “half of colleges may close in the next 5-10 years”

(1) Via Instapundit, a popular writeup of a study that found samples acquired by the patients themselves were more accurate than the usual deep nasal and pharyngeal swabs, and not just more comfortable. Besides, they are less likely to expose healthcare personnel, as deep sampling often causes sneezing, coughing, and gagging.

I should perhaps clarify here that the accuracy-limiting factor of RT-PCR testing, at this point, is not the testing apparatus at all (with lab-prepared samples, accuracy approaches 100%) but the sampling technique.

 

The original scientific article about the study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine: http://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMc2016321

Here is an animation of how, once the sample has been acquired, RT-PCR testing works in the lab.

 

(2) There were several reports that, counterintuitively, smokers were underrepresented among COVID19 positive cases. Now in https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.01.20118877v2.full.pdf is an intriguing large-sample study from doctors associated with Clalit Health Services, the largest HMO in Israel which has about 3 million patients in its central database. [Full disclosure: we are insured through a competitor. All four authorized HMOs operate such databases—unlike with Surgiscape, I have every reason to believe these data are kosher.]

As of the cutoff date (May 16), over 145,000 adults insured with Clalit underwent RT-PCR testing for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2),  3.3% of which tested positive. After discarding cases aged under 18 and over 95, as well as those where it was unknown whether they smoked or not, the authors were left with 4,235 positive tests and 124,192 negative. Out of the latter, they randomly selected a control sample of 20,755 patients (5x as many) that matched statistical make-up of the positive sample in terms of gender, age distribution, and ethnosocial group — Jewish Orthodox, Arab, General(mostly Jewish non-Orthodox).

Guess what: Statistically, 9.8% of the  COVID19 positive cases smoke currently, one-half the percentage in the control group 18.2%. Because of the large sample size, p<0.001, i.e., the probability that this result could have arisen from “the luck of the draw” is less than 0.1%. There was no significant difference for past smokers (11.6 vs. 12.9%) — it’s definitely got something to do with current smokers (nicotine or some other component of tobacco smoke).

Of the COVID19-positive tests, 1.8% deceased, 2.0% hospitalized in severe condition, 4.0% in moderate condition, 15.0% in mild condition, the remaining 77.2% did not require hospitalization. There was no significant correlation between the degree of severity and the patient’s smoking status.

Changeux et al11, relying on similar observations, propose a crucial role for the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) in COVID-19 pathology. According to their neurotropic hypothesis, SARS-CoV-2 invades the central nervous system through the nAChR receptor, present in neurons of the olfactory system, as reflected by the frequent occurrence of neurologic symptoms, such as loss of smell or taste, or intense fatigue in patients affected by COVID-19. Other mechanisms may also affect SARS-CoV-2 infection potential in smokers. It is widely accepted that the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) represents the main receptor molecule for SARS-CoV-2, and smoking has been shown to differentially affect ACE2 expression in tissues12–14. Other putative explanations could involve altered cytokine expression such as IL-6, for which increased levels are associated with unfavorable disease outcome14,15.

 

 

(3) Business school professor admits that as many as half of tier-2 colleges will be gone in the next 5-10 years. This was a bubble waiting to burst anyway: the COVID-19 crisis and the attendant shift to online learning is just precipitating the burst, the way Amazon and online shopping more generally were the downfall of many a brick-and-mortar store.

(4) This is the sort of behavior that makes me cringe in embarrassment for my profession. True scientists follow the facts wherever they lead, and seek the truth wherever it may be found. Political hacks exist in every profession — but they are especially grating in ours. And when the public loses all faith in us because of such politicized hacks, it will be blamed on “anti-science” and anti-intellectualism.

 

COVID19 update, April 24, 2020: Belgium reopening May 4, Israel reopens “phase 1.5”, NYC immunity testing, nicotine

(1) Belgium has been nibbling around the edges of its existing lockdown, allowing phone stores, garden stores, etc. to reopen, but (with the highest per capita COVID19 mortality of any country in the world) experts kept saying they were not out of the woods yet. Now the country’s national security council decided on reopening in two phases, May 4 and May 19. https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20200423_04932921

In Phase 1 (May 4), the following will again be permitted:

  • outdoor sports like tennis, angling, horseback riding (as a family, or in pairs — not yet in group)
  • registered sports teams can resume training
  • public parks etc are reopened
  • car dealers/garages, bike shops, real estate offices may function “by appointment” (not yet walk-in)
  • smaller home improvement shops (paint, tiles, lighting fixtures, kitchen stores,…) may reopen
  • non-essential enterprises may resume activity, subject to social distancing
  • masks will be mandatory on public transit. (Belgium has an extensive multimodal network.)

Phase 2 (May 18) adds:

  • all remaining businesses may reopen. Hairdressers have to wear masks
  • schools gradually reopen
  • museums reopen for individuals or families, not yet for groups
  • meetings up to 50 permitted
  • visit to vacation homes (in practice, on the sea coast or in the Ardennes): details to be finalized

“Horeca” (hotels, restaurants, and cafés) are not to be opened before June 8.

(2) Israel was supposed to have its Phase 2 reopening in a week, but apparently decided to speed things along a bit. As of Sunday, remaining stores are allowed to reopen. In addition, hairdressers are allowed to reopen, with maximum 2 clients at a time, and disinfecting equipment between every haircut. Indoor malls still remain closed for now. Restaurants, which until now were only allowed to operate by delivery, are now also permitted to offer takeaway (not yet with seating).

The country will go in hard lockdown over Memorial Day and Independence Day, to prevent super-spreader events like there were at Purim, but that should be “it” for a while. Active COVID19 cases in Israel have been declining for a week now, as recoveries outpace new cases.

(3) Much ado about preliminary results from a community testing effort in NYC that appears to indicate as much as 20% of the NYC population has antibodies for COVID19. (The figure drops to 3.6% for upstate New York.)

(4) (Hat tip: Erik Wingren.) Peculiar and counterintuitive claims (see here and here) from France that smoking, and specifically nicotine, would have a protective effect — specifically, that the COVID19 patient populations contained an anomalously low percentage of smokers compared to the general population.

A French study from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie found that just 8.5 percent of 11,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients were smokers compared to 25.4 percent of the country’s population.

They are now experimenting with nicotine[*] patches. The initial data from China (caveat emptor) appeared to indicate that smoking was a risk factor because of damage to the lungs — but that damage comes overwhelmingly from tar, not from nicotine. (I wonder if anybody looked at “vapers” for comparison?) Anecdotally, a friend who is immunocompromised following an organ transplant, and has been having regular troubles with bronchitis, told me he took up vaping (which gives him nicotine but not tar), and it greatly reduced his respiratory issues.

[*] What is the purpose of nicotine in nature? Some plants produce alkaloids to deter animals from eating them: for this purpose, tobacco produces nicotine (named after Jean Nicot, the 16th century French diplomat who was the first to bring tobacco to France).