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  • Volume 76, Issue 2
  • COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on social relationships and health
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  • http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1512-4471 Emily Long 1 ,
  • Susan Patterson 1 ,
  • Karen Maxwell 1 ,
  • Carolyn Blake 1 ,
  • http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7342-4566 Raquel Bosó Pérez 1 ,
  • Ruth Lewis 1 ,
  • Mark McCann 1 ,
  • Julie Riddell 1 ,
  • Kathryn Skivington 1 ,
  • Rachel Wilson-Lowe 1 ,
  • http://orcid.org/0000-0002-4409-6601 Kirstin R Mitchell 2
  • 1 MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit , University of Glasgow , Glasgow , UK
  • 2 MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Institute of Health & Wellbeing , University of Glasgow , Glasgow , UK
  • Correspondence to Dr Emily Long, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G3 7HR, UK; emily.long{at}glasgow.ac.uk

This essay examines key aspects of social relationships that were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It focuses explicitly on relational mechanisms of health and brings together theory and emerging evidence on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to make recommendations for future public health policy and recovery. We first provide an overview of the pandemic in the UK context, outlining the nature of the public health response. We then introduce four distinct domains of social relationships: social networks, social support, social interaction and intimacy, highlighting the mechanisms through which the pandemic and associated public health response drastically altered social interactions in each domain. Throughout the essay, the lens of health inequalities, and perspective of relationships as interconnecting elements in a broader system, is used to explore the varying impact of these disruptions. The essay concludes by providing recommendations for longer term recovery ensuring that the social relational cost of COVID-19 is adequately considered in efforts to rebuild.

  • inequalities

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Data sharing not applicable as no data sets generated and/or analysed for this study. Data sharing not applicable as no data sets generated or analysed for this essay.

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Infectious disease pandemics, including SARS and COVID-19, demand intrapersonal behaviour change and present highly complex challenges for public health. 1 A pandemic of an airborne infection, spread easily through social contact, assails human relationships by drastically altering the ways through which humans interact. In this essay, we draw on theories of social relationships to examine specific ways in which relational mechanisms key to health and well-being were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Relational mechanisms refer to the processes between people that lead to change in health outcomes.

At the time of writing, the future surrounding COVID-19 was uncertain. Vaccine programmes were being rolled out in countries that could afford them, but new and more contagious variants of the virus were also being discovered. The recovery journey looked long, with continued disruption to social relationships. The social cost of COVID-19 was only just beginning to emerge, but the mental health impact was already considerable, 2 3 and the inequality of the health burden stark. 4 Knowledge of the epidemiology of COVID-19 accrued rapidly, but evidence of the most effective policy responses remained uncertain.

The initial response to COVID-19 in the UK was reactive and aimed at reducing mortality, with little time to consider the social implications, including for interpersonal and community relationships. The terminology of ‘social distancing’ quickly became entrenched both in public and policy discourse. This equation of physical distance with social distance was regrettable, since only physical proximity causes viral transmission, whereas many forms of social proximity (eg, conversations while walking outdoors) are minimal risk, and are crucial to maintaining relationships supportive of health and well-being.

The aim of this essay is to explore four key relational mechanisms that were impacted by the pandemic and associated restrictions: social networks, social support, social interaction and intimacy. We use relational theories and emerging research on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic response to make three key recommendations: one regarding public health responses; and two regarding social recovery. Our understanding of these mechanisms stems from a ‘systems’ perspective which casts social relationships as interdependent elements within a connected whole. 5

Social networks

Social networks characterise the individuals and social connections that compose a system (such as a workplace, community or society). Social relationships range from spouses and partners, to coworkers, friends and acquaintances. They vary across many dimensions, including, for example, frequency of contact and emotional closeness. Social networks can be understood both in terms of the individuals and relationships that compose the network, as well as the overall network structure (eg, how many of your friends know each other).

Social networks show a tendency towards homophily, or a phenomenon of associating with individuals who are similar to self. 6 This is particularly true for ‘core’ network ties (eg, close friends), while more distant, sometimes called ‘weak’ ties tend to show more diversity. During the height of COVID-19 restrictions, face-to-face interactions were often reduced to core network members, such as partners, family members or, potentially, live-in roommates; some ‘weak’ ties were lost, and interactions became more limited to those closest. Given that peripheral, weaker social ties provide a diversity of resources, opinions and support, 7 COVID-19 likely resulted in networks that were smaller and more homogenous.

Such changes were not inevitable nor necessarily enduring, since social networks are also adaptive and responsive to change, in that a disruption to usual ways of interacting can be replaced by new ways of engaging (eg, Zoom). Yet, important inequalities exist, wherein networks and individual relationships within networks are not equally able to adapt to such changes. For example, individuals with a large number of newly established relationships (eg, university students) may have struggled to transfer these relationships online, resulting in lost contacts and a heightened risk of social isolation. This is consistent with research suggesting that young adults were the most likely to report a worsening of relationships during COVID-19, whereas older adults were the least likely to report a change. 8

Lastly, social connections give rise to emergent properties of social systems, 9 where a community-level phenomenon develops that cannot be attributed to any one member or portion of the network. For example, local area-based networks emerged due to geographic restrictions (eg, stay-at-home orders), resulting in increases in neighbourly support and local volunteering. 10 In fact, research suggests that relationships with neighbours displayed the largest net gain in ratings of relationship quality compared with a range of relationship types (eg, partner, colleague, friend). 8 Much of this was built from spontaneous individual interactions within local communities, which together contributed to the ‘community spirit’ that many experienced. 11 COVID-19 restrictions thus impacted the personal social networks and the structure of the larger networks within the society.

Social support

Social support, referring to the psychological and material resources provided through social interaction, is a critical mechanism through which social relationships benefit health. In fact, social support has been shown to be one of the most important resilience factors in the aftermath of stressful events. 12 In the context of COVID-19, the usual ways in which individuals interact and obtain social support have been severely disrupted.

One such disruption has been to opportunities for spontaneous social interactions. For example, conversations with colleagues in a break room offer an opportunity for socialising beyond one’s core social network, and these peripheral conversations can provide a form of social support. 13 14 A chance conversation may lead to advice helpful to coping with situations or seeking formal help. Thus, the absence of these spontaneous interactions may mean the reduction of indirect support-seeking opportunities. While direct support-seeking behaviour is more effective at eliciting support, it also requires significantly more effort and may be perceived as forceful and burdensome. 15 The shift to homeworking and closure of community venues reduced the number of opportunities for these spontaneous interactions to occur, and has, second, focused them locally. Consequently, individuals whose core networks are located elsewhere, or who live in communities where spontaneous interaction is less likely, have less opportunity to benefit from spontaneous in-person supportive interactions.

However, alongside this disruption, new opportunities to interact and obtain social support have arisen. The surge in community social support during the initial lockdown mirrored that often seen in response to adverse events (eg, natural disasters 16 ). COVID-19 restrictions that confined individuals to their local area also compelled them to focus their in-person efforts locally. Commentators on the initial lockdown in the UK remarked on extraordinary acts of generosity between individuals who belonged to the same community but were unknown to each other. However, research on adverse events also tells us that such community support is not necessarily maintained in the longer term. 16

Meanwhile, online forms of social support are not bound by geography, thus enabling interactions and social support to be received from a wider network of people. Formal online social support spaces (eg, support groups) existed well before COVID-19, but have vastly increased since. While online interactions can increase perceived social support, it is unclear whether remote communication technologies provide an effective substitute from in-person interaction during periods of social distancing. 17 18 It makes intuitive sense that the usefulness of online social support will vary by the type of support offered, degree of social interaction and ‘online communication skills’ of those taking part. Youth workers, for instance, have struggled to keep vulnerable youth engaged in online youth clubs, 19 despite others finding a positive association between amount of digital technology used by individuals during lockdown and perceived social support. 20 Other research has found that more frequent face-to-face contact and phone/video contact both related to lower levels of depression during the time period of March to August 2020, but the negative effect of a lack of contact was greater for those with higher levels of usual sociability. 21 Relatedly, important inequalities in social support exist, such that individuals who occupy more socially disadvantaged positions in society (eg, low socioeconomic status, older people) tend to have less access to social support, 22 potentially exacerbated by COVID-19.

Social and interactional norms

Interactional norms are key relational mechanisms which build trust, belonging and identity within and across groups in a system. Individuals in groups and societies apply meaning by ‘approving, arranging and redefining’ symbols of interaction. 23 A handshake, for instance, is a powerful symbol of trust and equality. Depending on context, not shaking hands may symbolise a failure to extend friendship, or a failure to reach agreement. The norms governing these symbols represent shared values and identity; and mutual understanding of these symbols enables individuals to achieve orderly interactions, establish supportive relationship accountability and connect socially. 24 25

Physical distancing measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 radically altered these norms of interaction, particularly those used to convey trust, affinity, empathy and respect (eg, hugging, physical comforting). 26 As epidemic waves rose and fell, the work to negotiate these norms required intense cognitive effort; previously taken-for-granted interactions were re-examined, factoring in current restriction levels, own and (assumed) others’ vulnerability and tolerance of risk. This created awkwardness, and uncertainty, for example, around how to bring closure to an in-person interaction or convey warmth. The instability in scripted ways of interacting created particular strain for individuals who already struggled to encode and decode interactions with others (eg, those who are deaf or have autism spectrum disorder); difficulties often intensified by mask wearing. 27

Large social gatherings—for example, weddings, school assemblies, sporting events—also present key opportunities for affirming and assimilating interactional norms, building cohesion and shared identity and facilitating cooperation across social groups. 28 Online ‘equivalents’ do not easily support ‘social-bonding’ activities such as singing and dancing, and rarely enable chance/spontaneous one-on-one conversations with peripheral/weaker network ties (see the Social networks section) which can help strengthen bonds across a larger network. The loss of large gatherings to celebrate rites of passage (eg, bar mitzvah, weddings) has additional relational costs since these events are performed by and for communities to reinforce belonging, and to assist in transitioning to new phases of life. 29 The loss of interaction with diverse others via community and large group gatherings also reduces intergroup contact, which may then tend towards more prejudiced outgroup attitudes. While online interaction can go some way to mimicking these interaction norms, there are key differences. A sense of anonymity, and lack of in-person emotional cues, tends to support norms of polarisation and aggression in expressing differences of opinion online. And while online platforms have potential to provide intergroup contact, the tendency of much social media to form homogeneous ‘echo chambers’ can serve to further reduce intergroup contact. 30 31

Intimacy relates to the feeling of emotional connection and closeness with other human beings. Emotional connection, through romantic, friendship or familial relationships, fulfils a basic human need 32 and strongly benefits health, including reduced stress levels, improved mental health, lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease. 32 33 Intimacy can be fostered through familiarity, feeling understood and feeling accepted by close others. 34

Intimacy via companionship and closeness is fundamental to mental well-being. Positively, the COVID-19 pandemic has offered opportunities for individuals to (re)connect and (re)strengthen close relationships within their household via quality time together, following closure of many usual external social activities. Research suggests that the first full UK lockdown period led to a net gain in the quality of steady relationships at a population level, 35 but amplified existing inequalities in relationship quality. 35 36 For some in single-person households, the absence of a companion became more conspicuous, leading to feelings of loneliness and lower mental well-being. 37 38 Additional pandemic-related relational strain 39 40 resulted, for some, in the initiation or intensification of domestic abuse. 41 42

Physical touch is another key aspect of intimacy, a fundamental human need crucial in maintaining and developing intimacy within close relationships. 34 Restrictions on social interactions severely restricted the number and range of people with whom physical affection was possible. The reduction in opportunity to give and receive affectionate physical touch was not experienced equally. Many of those living alone found themselves completely without physical contact for extended periods. The deprivation of physical touch is evidenced to take a heavy emotional toll. 43 Even in future, once physical expressions of affection can resume, new levels of anxiety over germs may introduce hesitancy into previously fluent blending of physical and verbal intimate social connections. 44

The pandemic also led to shifts in practices and norms around sexual relationship building and maintenance, as individuals adapted and sought alternative ways of enacting sexual intimacy. This too is important, given that intimate sexual activity has known benefits for health. 45 46 Given that social restrictions hinged on reducing household mixing, possibilities for partnered sexual activity were primarily guided by living arrangements. While those in cohabiting relationships could potentially continue as before, those who were single or in non-cohabiting relationships generally had restricted opportunities to maintain their sexual relationships. Pornography consumption and digital partners were reported to increase since lockdown. 47 However, online interactions are qualitatively different from in-person interactions and do not provide the same opportunities for physical intimacy.

Recommendations and conclusions

In the sections above we have outlined the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted social relationships, showing how relational mechanisms key to health have been undermined. While some of the damage might well self-repair after the pandemic, there are opportunities inherent in deliberative efforts to build back in ways that facilitate greater resilience in social and community relationships. We conclude by making three recommendations: one regarding public health responses to the pandemic; and two regarding social recovery.

Recommendation 1: explicitly count the relational cost of public health policies to control the pandemic

Effective handling of a pandemic recognises that social, economic and health concerns are intricately interwoven. It is clear that future research and policy attention must focus on the social consequences. As described above, policies which restrict physical mixing across households carry heavy and unequal relational costs. These include for individuals (eg, loss of intimate touch), dyads (eg, loss of warmth, comfort), networks (eg, restricted access to support) and communities (eg, loss of cohesion and identity). Such costs—and their unequal impact—should not be ignored in short-term efforts to control an epidemic. Some public health responses—restrictions on international holiday travel and highly efficient test and trace systems—have relatively small relational costs and should be prioritised. At a national level, an earlier move to proportionate restrictions, and investment in effective test and trace systems, may help prevent escalation of spread to the point where a national lockdown or tight restrictions became an inevitability. Where policies with relational costs are unavoidable, close attention should be paid to the unequal relational impact for those whose personal circumstances differ from normative assumptions of two adult families. This includes consideration of whether expectations are fair (eg, for those who live alone), whether restrictions on social events are equitable across age group, religious/ethnic groupings and social class, and also to ensure that the language promoted by such policies (eg, households; families) is not exclusionary. 48 49 Forethought to unequal impacts on social relationships should thus be integral to the work of epidemic preparedness teams.

Recommendation 2: intelligently balance online and offline ways of relating

A key ingredient for well-being is ‘getting together’ in a physical sense. This is fundamental to a human need for intimate touch, physical comfort, reinforcing interactional norms and providing practical support. Emerging evidence suggests that online ways of relating cannot simply replace physical interactions. But online interaction has many benefits and for some it offers connections that did not exist previously. In particular, online platforms provide new forms of support for those unable to access offline services because of mobility issues (eg, older people) or because they are geographically isolated from their support community (eg, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth). Ultimately, multiple forms of online and offline social interactions are required to meet the needs of varying groups of people (eg, LGBTQ, older people). Future research and practice should aim to establish ways of using offline and online support in complementary and even synergistic ways, rather than veering between them as social restrictions expand and contract. Intelligent balancing of online and offline ways of relating also pertains to future policies on home and flexible working. A decision to switch to wholesale or obligatory homeworking should consider the risk to relational ‘group properties’ of the workplace community and their impact on employees’ well-being, focusing in particular on unequal impacts (eg, new vs established employees). Intelligent blending of online and in-person working is required to achieve flexibility while also nurturing supportive networks at work. Intelligent balance also implies strategies to build digital literacy and minimise digital exclusion, as well as coproducing solutions with intended beneficiaries.

Recommendation 3: build stronger and sustainable localised communities

In balancing offline and online ways of interacting, there is opportunity to capitalise on the potential for more localised, coherent communities due to scaled-down travel, homeworking and local focus that will ideally continue after restrictions end. There are potential economic benefits after the pandemic, such as increased trade as home workers use local resources (eg, coffee shops), but also relational benefits from stronger relationships around the orbit of the home and neighbourhood. Experience from previous crises shows that community volunteer efforts generated early on will wane over time in the absence of deliberate work to maintain them. Adequately funded partnerships between local government, third sector and community groups are required to sustain community assets that began as a direct response to the pandemic. Such partnerships could work to secure green spaces and indoor (non-commercial) meeting spaces that promote community interaction. Green spaces in particular provide a triple benefit in encouraging physical activity and mental health, as well as facilitating social bonding. 50 In building local communities, small community networks—that allow for diversity and break down ingroup/outgroup views—may be more helpful than the concept of ‘support bubbles’, which are exclusionary and less sustainable in the longer term. Rigorously designed intervention and evaluation—taking a systems approach—will be crucial in ensuring scale-up and sustainability.

The dramatic change to social interaction necessitated by efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 created stark challenges but also opportunities. Our essay highlights opportunities for learning, both to ensure the equity and humanity of physical restrictions, and to sustain the salutogenic effects of social relationships going forward. The starting point for capitalising on this learning is recognition of the disruption to relational mechanisms as a key part of the socioeconomic and health impact of the pandemic. In recovery planning, a general rule is that what is good for decreasing health inequalities (such as expanding social protection and public services and pursuing green inclusive growth strategies) 4 will also benefit relationships and safeguard relational mechanisms for future generations. Putting this into action will require political will.

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Twitter @karenmaxSPHSU, @Mark_McCann, @Rwilsonlowe, @KMitchinGlasgow

Contributors EL and KM led on the manuscript conceptualisation, review and editing. SP, KM, CB, RBP, RL, MM, JR, KS and RW-L contributed to drafting and revising the article. All authors assisted in revising the final draft.

Funding The research reported in this publication was supported by the Medical Research Council (MC_UU_00022/1, MC_UU_00022/3) and the Chief Scientist Office (SPHSU11, SPHSU14). EL is also supported by MRC Skills Development Fellowship Award (MR/S015078/1). KS and MM are also supported by a Medical Research Council Strategic Award (MC_PC_13027).

Competing interests None declared.

Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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How to Write About Coronavirus in a College Essay

Students can share how they navigated life during the coronavirus pandemic in a full-length essay or an optional supplement.

Writing About COVID-19 in College Essays

Serious disabled woman concentrating on her work she sitting at her workplace and working on computer at office

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Experts say students should be honest and not limit themselves to merely their experiences with the pandemic.

The global impact of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, means colleges and prospective students alike are in for an admissions cycle like no other. Both face unprecedented challenges and questions as they grapple with their respective futures amid the ongoing fallout of the pandemic.

Colleges must examine applicants without the aid of standardized test scores for many – a factor that prompted many schools to go test-optional for now . Even grades, a significant component of a college application, may be hard to interpret with some high schools adopting pass-fail classes last spring due to the pandemic. Major college admissions factors are suddenly skewed.

"I can't help but think other (admissions) factors are going to matter more," says Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy, a website that offers free and paid essay-writing resources.

College essays and letters of recommendation , Sawyer says, are likely to carry more weight than ever in this admissions cycle. And many essays will likely focus on how the pandemic shaped students' lives throughout an often tumultuous 2020.

But before writing a college essay focused on the coronavirus, students should explore whether it's the best topic for them.

Writing About COVID-19 for a College Application

Much of daily life has been colored by the coronavirus. Virtual learning is the norm at many colleges and high schools, many extracurriculars have vanished and social lives have stalled for students complying with measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"For some young people, the pandemic took away what they envisioned as their senior year," says Robert Alexander, dean of admissions, financial aid and enrollment management at the University of Rochester in New York. "Maybe that's a spot on a varsity athletic team or the lead role in the fall play. And it's OK for them to mourn what should have been and what they feel like they lost, but more important is how are they making the most of the opportunities they do have?"

That question, Alexander says, is what colleges want answered if students choose to address COVID-19 in their college essay.

But the question of whether a student should write about the coronavirus is tricky. The answer depends largely on the student.

"In general, I don't think students should write about COVID-19 in their main personal statement for their application," Robin Miller, master college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a college counseling company, wrote in an email.

"Certainly, there may be exceptions to this based on a student's individual experience, but since the personal essay is the main place in the application where the student can really allow their voice to be heard and share insight into who they are as an individual, there are likely many other topics they can choose to write about that are more distinctive and unique than COVID-19," Miller says.

Opinions among admissions experts vary on whether to write about the likely popular topic of the pandemic.

"If your essay communicates something positive, unique, and compelling about you in an interesting and eloquent way, go for it," Carolyn Pippen, principal college admissions counselor at IvyWise, wrote in an email. She adds that students shouldn't be dissuaded from writing about a topic merely because it's common, noting that "topics are bound to repeat, no matter how hard we try to avoid it."

Above all, she urges honesty.

"If your experience within the context of the pandemic has been truly unique, then write about that experience, and the standing out will take care of itself," Pippen says. "If your experience has been generally the same as most other students in your context, then trying to find a unique angle can easily cross the line into exploiting a tragedy, or at least appearing as though you have."

But focusing entirely on the pandemic can limit a student to a single story and narrow who they are in an application, Sawyer says. "There are so many wonderful possibilities for what you can say about yourself outside of your experience within the pandemic."

He notes that passions, strengths, career interests and personal identity are among the multitude of essay topic options available to applicants and encourages them to probe their values to help determine the topic that matters most to them – and write about it.

That doesn't mean the pandemic experience has to be ignored if applicants feel the need to write about it.

Writing About Coronavirus in Main and Supplemental Essays

Students can choose to write a full-length college essay on the coronavirus or summarize their experience in a shorter form.

To help students explain how the pandemic affected them, The Common App has added an optional section to address this topic. Applicants have 250 words to describe their pandemic experience and the personal and academic impact of COVID-19.

"That's not a trick question, and there's no right or wrong answer," Alexander says. Colleges want to know, he adds, how students navigated the pandemic, how they prioritized their time, what responsibilities they took on and what they learned along the way.

If students can distill all of the above information into 250 words, there's likely no need to write about it in a full-length college essay, experts say. And applicants whose lives were not heavily altered by the pandemic may even choose to skip the optional COVID-19 question.

"This space is best used to discuss hardship and/or significant challenges that the student and/or the student's family experienced as a result of COVID-19 and how they have responded to those difficulties," Miller notes. Using the section to acknowledge a lack of impact, she adds, "could be perceived as trite and lacking insight, despite the good intentions of the applicant."

To guard against this lack of awareness, Sawyer encourages students to tap someone they trust to review their writing , whether it's the 250-word Common App response or the full-length essay.

Experts tend to agree that the short-form approach to this as an essay topic works better, but there are exceptions. And if a student does have a coronavirus story that he or she feels must be told, Alexander encourages the writer to be authentic in the essay.

"My advice for an essay about COVID-19 is the same as my advice about an essay for any topic – and that is, don't write what you think we want to read or hear," Alexander says. "Write what really changed you and that story that now is yours and yours alone to tell."

Sawyer urges students to ask themselves, "What's the sentence that only I can write?" He also encourages students to remember that the pandemic is only a chapter of their lives and not the whole book.

Miller, who cautions against writing a full-length essay on the coronavirus, says that if students choose to do so they should have a conversation with their high school counselor about whether that's the right move. And if students choose to proceed with COVID-19 as a topic, she says they need to be clear, detailed and insightful about what they learned and how they adapted along the way.

"Approaching the essay in this manner will provide important balance while demonstrating personal growth and vulnerability," Miller says.

Pippen encourages students to remember that they are in an unprecedented time for college admissions.

"It is important to keep in mind with all of these (admission) factors that no colleges have ever had to consider them this way in the selection process, if at all," Pippen says. "They have had very little time to calibrate their evaluations of different application components within their offices, let alone across institutions. This means that colleges will all be handling the admissions process a little bit differently, and their approaches may even evolve over the course of the admissions cycle."

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How Science Beat the Virus

And what it lost in the process

illustration of scientific papers in the shape of the coronavirus

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This article was published online on December 14, 2020.

In fall of 2019, exactly zero scientists were studying COVID‑19, because no one knew the disease existed. The coronavirus that causes it, SARS‑CoV‑2, had only recently jumped into humans and had been neither identified nor named. But by the end of March 2020, it had spread to more than 170 countries, sickened more than 750,000 people, and triggered the biggest pivot in the history of modern science. Thousands of researchers dropped whatever intellectual puzzles had previously consumed their curiosity and began working on the pandemic instead. In mere months, science became thoroughly COVID-ized.

As of this writing, the biomedical library PubMed lists more than 74,000 COVID-related scientific papers—more than twice as many as there are about polio, measles, cholera, dengue, or other diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. Only 9,700 Ebola-related papers have been published since its discovery in 1976; last year, at least one journal received more COVID‑19 papers than that for consideration. By September, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine had received 30,000 submissions—16,000 more than in all of 2019. “All that difference is COVID‑19,” Eric Rubin, NEJM ’s editor in chief, says. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told me, “The way this has resulted in a shift in scientific priorities has been unprecedented.”

Much like famous initiatives such as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program, epidemics focus the energies of large groups of scientists. In the U.S., the influenza pandemic of 1918, the threat of malaria in the tropical battlegrounds of World War II, and the rise of polio in the postwar years all triggered large pivots. Recent epidemics of Ebola and Zika each prompted a temporary burst of funding and publications . But “nothing in history was even close to the level of pivoting that’s happening right now,” Madhukar Pai of McGill University told me.

That’s partly because there are just more scientists: From 1960 to 2010, the number of biological or medical researchers in the U.S. increased sevenfold , from just 30,000 to more than 220,000. But SARS-CoV-2 has also spread farther and faster than any new virus in a century. For Western scientists, it wasn’t a faraway threat like Ebola. It threatened to inflame their lungs. It shut down their labs. “It hit us at home,” Pai said.

In a survey of 2,500 researchers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, Kyle Myers from Harvard and his team found that 32 percent had shifted their focus toward the pandemic. Neuroscientists who study the sense of smell started investigating why COVID‑19 patients tend to lose theirs. Physicists who had previously experienced infectious diseases only by contracting them found themselves creating models to inform policy makers. Michael D. L. Johnson at the University of Arizona normally studies copper’s toxic effects on bacteria. But when he learned that SARS‑CoV‑2 persists for less time on copper surfaces than on other materials, he partially pivoted to see how the virus might be vulnerable to the metal. No other disease has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.

These efforts have already paid off. New diagnostic tests can detect the virus within minutes. Massive open data sets of viral genomes and COVID‑19 cases have produced the most detailed picture yet of a new disease’s evolution. Vaccines are being developed with record-breaking speed. SARS‑CoV‑2 will be one of the most thoroughly characterized of all pathogens, and the secrets it yields will deepen our understanding of other viruses, leaving the world better prepared to face the next pandemic.

But the COVID‑19 pivot has also revealed the all-too-human frailties of the scientific enterprise . Flawed research made the pandemic more confusing, influencing misguided policies. Clinicians wasted millions of dollars on trials that were so sloppy as to be pointless. Overconfident poseurs published misleading work on topics in which they had no expertise. Racial and gender inequalities in the scientific field widened.

Amid a long winter of sickness , it’s hard not to focus on the political failures that led us to a third surge. But when people look back on this period, decades from now, they will also tell stories, both good and bad, about this extraordinary moment for science. At its best, science is a self-correcting march toward greater knowledge for the betterment of humanity. At its worst, it is a self-interested pursuit of greater prestige at the cost of truth and rigor. The pandemic brought both aspects to the fore. Humanity will benefit from the products of the COVID‑19 pivot. Science itself will too, if it learns from the experience.

In February, Jennifer Doudna, one of America’s most prominent scientists, was still focused on CRISPR—the gene-editing tool that she’d co-discovered and that won her a Nobel Prize in October. But when her son’s high school shut down and UC Berkeley, her university, closed its campus, the severity of the impending pandemic became clear. “In three weeks, I went from thinking we’re still okay to thinking that my whole life is going to change,” she told me. On March 13, she and dozens of colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, which she leads, agreed to pause most of their ongoing projects and redirect their skills to addressing COVID‑19. They worked on CRISPR-based diagnostic tests. Because existing tests were in short supply, they converted lab space into a pop-up testing facility to serve the local community. “We need to make our expertise relevant to whatever is happening right now,” she said.

Scientists who’d already been studying other emerging diseases were even quicker off the mark. Lauren Gardner, an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied dengue and Zika, knew that new epidemics are accompanied by a dearth of real-time data. So she and one of her students created an online global dashboard to map and tally all publicly reported COVID‑19 cases and deaths. After one night of work, they released it, on January 22. The dashboard has since been accessed daily by governments, public-health agencies, news organizations, and anxious citizens.

Studying deadly viruses is challenging at the best of times, and was especially so this past year. To handle SARS‑CoV‑2, scientists must work in “biosafety level 3” labs, fitted with special airflow systems and other extreme measures; although the actual number is not known, an estimated 200 such facilities exist in the U.S. Researchers often test new drugs and vaccines on monkeys before proceeding to human trials, but the U.S. is facing a monkey shortage after China stopped exporting the animals, possibly because it needed them for research. And other biomedical research is now more difficult because of physical-distancing requirements. “Usually we had people packed in, but with COVID, we do shift work,” Akiko Iwasaki, a Yale immunologist, told me. “People are coming in at ridiculous hours” to protect themselves from the very virus they are trying to study.

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Experts on emerging diseases are scarce: These threats go neglected by the public in the lulls between epidemics. “Just a year ago I had to explain to people why I was studying coronaviruses,” says Lisa Gralinski of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “That’s never going to be a concern again.” Stressed and stretched, she and other emerging-disease researchers were also conscripted into unfamiliar roles. They’re acting as makeshift advisers to businesses, schools, and local governments. They’re barraged by interview requests from journalists. They’re explaining the nuances of the pandemic on Twitter, to huge new follower counts. “It’s often the same person who’s helping the Namibian government to manage malaria outbreaks and is now being pulled into helping Maryland manage COVID‑19,” Gardner told me.

But the newfound global interest in viruses also means “you have a lot more people you can talk through problems with,” Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told me. Indeed, COVID‑19 papers are more likely than typical biomedical studies to have authors who had never published together before, according to a team led by Ying Ding, who works at the University of Texas at Austin.

Fast-forming alliances could work at breakneck speed because many researchers had spent the past few decades transforming science from a plodding, cloistered endeavor into something nimbler and more transparent. Traditionally, a scientist submits her paper to a journal, which sends it to a (surprisingly small) group of peers for (several rounds of usually anonymous) comments; if the paper passes this (typically months-long) peer-review gantlet, it is published (often behind an expensive paywall). Languid and opaque, this system is ill-suited to a fast-moving outbreak. But biomedical scientists can now upload preliminary versions of their papers, or “preprints,” to freely accessible websites, allowing others to immediately dissect and build upon their results. This practice had been slowly gaining popularity before 2020, but proved so vital for sharing information about COVID‑19 that it will likely become a mainstay of modern biomedical research. Preprints accelerate science, and the pandemic accelerated the use of preprints. At the start of the year, one repository, medRxiv (pronounced “med archive”), held about 1,000 preprints. By the end of October, it had more than 12,000.

Open data sets and sophisticated new tools to manipulate them have likewise made today’s researchers more flexible. SARS‑CoV‑2’s genome was decoded and shared by Chinese scientists just 10 days after the first cases were reported. By November, more than 197,000 SARS‑CoV‑2 genomes had been sequenced. About 90 years ago, no one had even seen an individual virus; today, scientists have reconstructed the shape of SARS‑CoV‑2 down to the position of individual atoms. Researchers have begun to uncover how SARS‑CoV‑2 compares with other coronaviruses in wild bats, the likely reservoir; how it infiltrates and co-opts our cells; how the immune system overreacts to it, creating the symptoms of COVID‑19. “We’re learning about this virus faster than we’ve ever learned about any virus in history,” Sabeti said.

By March, the odds of quickly eradicating the new coronavirus looked slim. A vaccine became the likeliest endgame, and the race to create one was a resounding success. The process normally takes years, but as I write this, 54 different vaccines are being tested for safety and efficacy, and 12 have entered Phase 3 clinical trials—the final checkpoint. As of this writing, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have announced that, based on preliminary results from these trials, their respective vaccines are roughly 95 percent effective at preventing COVID‑19. * “We went from a virus whose sequence was only known in January, and now in the fall, we’re finishing— finishing —a Phase 3 trial,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, told me. “Holy mackerel.”

Most vaccines comprise dead, weakened, or fragmented pathogens, and must be made from scratch whenever a new threat emerges. But over the past decade, the U.S. and other countries have moved away from this slow “one bug, one drug” approach. Instead, they’ve invested in so-called platform technologies, in which a standard chassis can be easily customized with different payloads that target new viruses. For example, the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both consist of nanoparticles that contain pieces of SARS‑CoV‑2’s genetic material—its mRNA. When volunteers are injected with these particles, their cells use the mRNA to reconstruct a noninfectious fragment of the virus, allowing their immune system to prepare antibodies that neutralize it. No company has ever brought an mRNA vaccine to market before, but because the basic platform had already been refined, researchers could quickly repurpose it with SARS‑CoV‑2’s mRNA. Moderna got its vaccine into Phase 1 clinical trials on March 16, just 66 days after the new virus’s genome was first uploaded—far faster than any pre-COVID vaccine.

Meanwhile, companies compressed the process of vaccine development by running what would normally be sequential steps in parallel, while still checking for safety and efficacy. The federal government’s Operation Warp Speed, an effort to accelerate vaccine distribution, funded several companies at once—an unusual move. It preordered doses and invested in manufacturing facilities before trials were complete, reducing the risk for pharmaceutical companies looking to participate. Ironically, federal ineptitude at containing SARS‑CoV‑2 helped too. In the U.S., “the fact that the virus is everywhere makes it easier to gauge the performance of a vaccine,” says Natalie Dean of the University of Florida, who studies vaccine trials. “You can’t do a [Phase 3] vaccine trial in South Korea,” because the outbreak there is under control.

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Vaccines will not immediately end the pandemic . Millions of doses will have to be manufactured, allocated, and distributed ; large numbers of Americans could refuse the vaccine ; and how long vaccine-induced immunity will last is still unclear. In the rosiest scenario, the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are approved and smoothly rolled out over the next 12 months. By the end of the year, the U.S. achieves herd immunity, after which the virus struggles to find susceptible hosts. It still circulates, but outbreaks are sporadic and short-lived. Schools and businesses reopen. Families hug tightly and celebrate joyously over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And the next time a mystery pathogen emerges, scientists hope to quickly slot its genetic material into proven platforms, and move the resulting vaccines through the same speedy pipelines that were developed during this pandemic. “I don’t think the world of vaccine development will ever be the same again,” says Nicole Lurie of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

illustration of spiral of scientific papers

As fast as the vaccine-development process was, it could have been faster. Despite the stakes, some pharmaceutical companies with relevant expertise chose not to enter the race, perhaps dissuaded by intense competition. Instead, from February to May, the sector roughly tripled its efforts to develop drugs to treat COVID‑19, according to Kevin Bryan, an economist at the University of Toronto. The decades-old steroid dexamethasone turned out to reduce death rates among severely ill patients on ventilators by more than 12 percent. Early hints suggest that newer treatments such as the monoclonal-antibody therapy bamlanivimab, which was just approved for emergency use by the FDA, could help newly infected patients who have not yet been hospitalized. But although these wins are significant, they are scarce. Most drugs haven’t been effective. Health-care workers became better at saving hospitalized patients more through improvements in basic medical care than through pharmaceutical panaceas—a predictable outcome, because antiviral drugs tend to offer only modest benefits.

The quest for COVID‑19 treatments was slowed by a torrent of shoddy studies whose results were meaningless at best and misleading at worst. Many of the thousands of clinical trials that were launched were too small to produce statistically solid results. Some lacked a control group—a set of comparable patients who received a placebo, and who provided a baseline against which the effects of a drug could be judged. Other trials needlessly overlapped. At least 227 involved hydroxychloroquine—the antimalarial drug that Donald Trump hyped for months. A few large trials eventually confirmed that hydroxychloroquine does nothing for COVID‑19 patients, but not before hundreds of thousands of people were recruited into pointlessly small studies . More than 100,000 Americans have also received convalescent plasma—another treatment that Trump touted. But because most were not enrolled in rigorous trials, “we still don’t know if it works—and it likely doesn’t,” says Luciana Borio, the former director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council. “What a waste of time and resources.”

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In the heat of a disaster, when emergency rooms are filling and patients are dying, it is hard to set up one careful study, let alone coordinate several across a country. But coordination is not impossible. During World War II , federal agencies unified private companies, universities, the military, and other entities in a carefully orchestrated effort to speed pharmaceutical development from benchtop to battlefield. The results—revolutionary malaria treatments, new ways of mass-producing antibiotics, and at least 10 new or improved vaccines for influenza and other diseases—represented “not a triumph of scientific genius but rather of organizational purpose and efficiency,” Kendall Hoyt of Dartmouth College has written.

Similar triumphs occurred last year—in other countries. In March, taking advantage of the United Kingdom’s nationalized health system, British researchers launched a nationwide study called Recovery, which has since enrolled more than 17,600 COVID‑19 patients across 176 institutions. Recovery offered conclusive answers about dexamethasone and hydroxychloroquine and is set to weigh in on several other treatments. No other study has done more to shape the treatment of COVID‑19. The U.S. is now catching up. In April, the NIH launched a partnership called ACTIV , in which academic and industry scientists prioritized the most promising drugs and coordinated trial plans across the country. Since August, several such trials have started. This model was late, but is likely to outlast the pandemic itself, allowing future researchers to rapidly sort medical wheat from pharmaceutical chaff. “I can’t imagine we’ll go back to doing clinical research in the future the way we did in the past,” the NIH’s Francis Collins said.

Even after the COVID‑19 pandemic, the fruits of the pivot will leave us better equipped for our long and intensifying war against harmful viruses. The last time a virus caused this much devastation—the flu pandemic of 1918—scientists were only just learning about viruses, and spent time looking for a bacterial culprit. This one is different. With so many scientists observing intently as a virus wreaks its horrible work upon millions of bodies, the world is learning lessons that could change the way we think about these pathogens forevermore.

Consider the long-term consequences of viral infections. Years after the original SARS virus hit Hong Kong in 2003, about a quarter of survivors still had myalgic encephalomyelitis—a chronic illness whose symptoms, such as extreme fatigue and brain fogs, can worsen dramatically after mild exertion. ME cases are thought to be linked to viral infections, and clusters sometimes follow big outbreaks. So when SARS‑CoV‑2 started spreading, people with ME were unsurprised to hear that tens of thousands of COVID‑19 “long-haulers” were experiencing incapacitating symptoms that rolled on for months . “Everyone in my community has been thinking about this since the start of the pandemic,” says Jennifer Brea, the executive director of the advocacy group #MEAction.

ME and sister illnesses such as dysautonomia, fibromyalgia, and mast cell activation syndrome have long been neglected, their symptoms dismissed as imaginary or psychiatric. Research is poorly funded, so few scientists study them. Little is known about how to prevent and treat them. This negligence has left COVID‑19 long-haulers with few answers or options, and they initially endured the same dismissal as the larger ME community. But their sheer numbers have forced a degree of recognition. They started researching, cataloging their own symptoms. They gained audiences with the NIH and the World Health Organization. Patients who are themselves experts in infectious disease or public health published their stories in top journals. “Long COVID” is being taken seriously, and Brea hopes it might drag all post-infection illnesses into the spotlight. ME never experienced a pivot. COVID‑19 might inadvertently create one.

Anthony Fauci hopes so. His career was defined by HIV, and in 2019 he said in a paper he co-wrote that “the collateral advantages of” studying HIV “have been profound.” Research into HIV/AIDS revolutionized our understanding of the immune system and how diseases subvert it. It produced techniques for developing antiviral drugs that led to treatments for hepatitis C. Inactivated versions of HIV have been used to treat cancers and genetic disorders. From one disease came a cascade of benefits. COVID‑19 will be no different. Fauci had personally seen cases of prolonged symptoms after other viral infections, but “I didn’t really have a good scientific handle on it,” he told me. Such cases are hard to study, because it’s usually impossible to identify the instigating pathogen. But COVID‑19 has created “the most unusual situation imaginable,” Fauci said—a massive cohort of people with long-haul symptoms that are almost certainly caused by one known virus. “It’s an opportunity we cannot lose,” he said.

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COVID‑19 has developed a terrifying mystique because it seems to behave in unusual ways. It causes mild symptoms in some but critical illness in others. It is a respiratory virus and yet seems to attack the heart, brain, kidneys, and other organs. It has reinfected a small number of people who had recently recovered. But many other viruses share similar abilities; they just don’t infect millions of people in a matter of months or grab the attention of the entire scientific community. Thanks to COVID‑19, more researchers are looking for these rarer sides of viral infections, and spotting them.

At least 20 known viruses, including influenza and measles, can trigger myocarditis—inflammation of the heart. Some of these cases resolve on their own, but others cause persistent scarring, and still others rapidly progress into lethal problems. No one knows what proportion of people with viral myocarditis experience the most mild fate, because doctors typically notice only those who seek medical attention. But now researchers are also intently scrutinizing the hearts of people with mild or asymptomatic COVID‑19 infections, including college athletes, given concerns about sudden cardiac arrest during strenuous workouts. The lessons from these efforts could ultimately avert deaths from other infections.

Respiratory viruses, though extremely common, are often neglected. Respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza viruses, rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, bocaviruses, a quartet of other human coronaviruses—they mostly cause mild coldlike illnesses, but those can be severe. How often? Why? It’s hard to say, because, influenza aside, such viruses attract little funding or interest. “There’s a perception that they’re just colds and there’s nothing much to learn,” says Emily Martin of the University of Michigan, who has long struggled to get funding to study them. Such reasoning is shortsighted folly. Respiratory viruses are the pathogens most likely to cause pandemics, and those outbreaks could potentially be far worse than COVID‑19’s.

Read: We need to talk about ventilation

Their movements through the air have been poorly studied, too. “There’s this very entrenched idea,” says Linsey Marr at Virginia Tech, that viruses mostly spread through droplets (short-range globs of snot and spit) rather than aerosols (smaller, dustlike flecks that travel farther). That idea dates back to the 1930s, when scientists were upending outdated notions that disease was caused by “bad air,” or miasma. But the evidence that SARS‑CoV‑2 can spread through aerosols “is now overwhelming,” says Marr, one of the few scientists who, before the pandemic, studied how viruses spread through air. “I’ve seen more acceptance in the last six months than over the 12 years I’ve been working on this.”

Another pandemic is inevitable, but it will find a very different community of scientists than COVID‑19 did. They will immediately work to determine whether the pathogen—most likely another respiratory virus—moves through aerosols, and whether it spreads from infected people before causing symptoms. They might call for masks and better ventilation from the earliest moments, not after months of debate. They will anticipate the possibility of an imminent wave of long-haul symptoms, and hopefully discover ways of preventing them. They might set up research groups to prioritize the most promising drugs and coordinate large clinical trials. They might take vaccine platforms that worked best against COVID‑19, slot in the genetic material of the new pathogen, and have a vaccine ready within months.

For all its benefits, the single-minded focus on COVID‑19 will also leave a slew of negative legacies. Science is mostly a zero-sum game, and when one topic monopolizes attention and money, others lose out. Last year, between physical-distancing restrictions, redirected funds, and distracted scientists, many lines of research slowed to a crawl. Long-term studies that monitored bird migrations or the changing climate will forever have holes in their data because field research had to be canceled. Conservationists who worked to protect monkeys and apes kept their distance for fear of passing COVID‑19 to already endangered species. Roughly 80 percent of non-COVID‑19 clinical trials in the U.S.—likely worth billions of dollars—were interrupted or stopped because hospitals were overwhelmed and volunteers were stuck at home. Even research on other infectious diseases was back-burnered. “All the non-COVID work that I was working on before the pandemic started is now piling up and gathering dust,” says Angela Rasmussen of Georgetown University, who normally studies Ebola and MERS. “Those are still problems.”

The COVID‑19 pandemic is a singular disaster, and it is reasonable for society—and scientists—to prioritize it. But the pivot was driven by opportunism as much as altruism. Governments, philanthropies, and universities channeled huge sums toward COVID‑19 research. The NIH alone received nearly $3.6 billion from Congress. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation apportioned $350 million for COVID‑19 work. “Whenever there’s a big pot of money, there’s a feeding frenzy,” Madhukar Pai told me. He works on tuberculosis, which causes 1.5 million deaths a year—comparable to COVID‑19’s toll in 2020. Yet tuberculosis research has been mostly paused. None of Pai’s colleagues pivoted when Ebola or Zika struck, but “half of us have now swung to working on COVID‑19,” he said. “It’s a black hole, sucking us all in.”

While the most qualified experts became quickly immersed in the pandemic response, others were stuck at home looking for ways to contribute. Using the same systems that made science faster, they could download data from free databases, run quick analyses with intuitive tools, publish their work on preprint servers, and publicize it on Twitter. Often, they made things worse by swerving out of their scholarly lanes and plowing into unfamiliar territory. Nathan Ballantyne, a philosopher at Fordham University, calls this “ epistemic trespassing .” It can be a good thing: Continental drift was championed by Alfred Wegener, a meteorologist; microbes were first documented by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a draper. But more often than not, epistemic trespassing just creates a mess, especially when inexperience couples with overconfidence.

On March 28, a preprint noted that countries that universally use a tuberculosis vaccine called BCG had lower COVID‑19 mortality rates. But such cross-country comparisons are infamously treacherous. For example, countries with higher cigarette-usage rates have longer life expectancies, not because smoking prolongs life but because it is more popular in wealthier nations. This tendency to draw faulty conclusions about individual health using data about large geographical regions is called the ecological fallacy. Epidemiologists know to avoid it. The BCG-preprint authors, who were from an osteopathic college in New York, didn’t seem to . But their paper was covered by more than 70 news outlets, and dozens of inexperienced teams offered similarly specious analyses. “People who don’t know how to spell tuberculosis have told me they can solve the link between BCG and COVID‑19,” Pai said. “Someone told me they can do it in 48 hours with a hackathon.”

illustration with stacks of reports

Other epistemic trespassers spent their time reinventing the wheel. One new study, published in NEJM , used lasers to show that when people speak, they release aerosols. But as the authors themselves note, the same result—sans lasers—was published in 1946, Marr says. I asked her whether any papers from the 2020 batch had taught her something new. After an uncomfortably long pause, she mentioned just one.

In some cases, bad papers helped shape the public narrative of the pandemic. On March 16, two biogeographers published a preprint arguing that COVID‑19 will “marginally affect the tropics” because it fares poorly in warm, humid conditions. Disease experts quickly noted that techniques like the ones the duo used are meant for modeling the geographic ranges of animal and plant species or vector-borne pathogens, and are ill-suited to simulating the spread of viruses like SARS-CoV-2. But their claim was picked up by more than 50 news outlets and echoed by the United Nations World Food Program. COVID‑19 has since run rampant in many tropical countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, and Colombia—and the preprint’s authors have qualified their conclusions in later versions of the paper. “It takes a certain type of person to think that weeks of reading papers gives them more perspective than someone with a Ph.D. on that subject, and that type of person has gotten a lot of airtime in this pandemic,” says Colin Carlson of Georgetown.

The incentives to trespass are substantial. Academia is a pyramid scheme: Each biomedical professor trains an average of six doctoral students across her career, but only 16 percent of the students get tenure-track positions . Competition is ferocious, and success hinges on getting published—a feat made easier by dramatic results. These factors pull researchers toward speed, short-termism, and hype at the expense of rigor—and the pandemic intensified that pull. With an anxious world crying out for information, any new paper could immediately draw international press coverage—and hundreds of citations.

The tsunami of rushed but dubious work made life harder for actual experts, who struggled to sift the signal from the noise. They also felt obliged to debunk spurious research in long Twitter threads and relentless media interviews—acts of public service that are rarely rewarded in academia. And they were overwhelmed by requests to peer-review new papers. Kristian Andersen, an infectious-disease researcher at Scripps Research, told me that journals used to send him two or three such requests a month. Now “I’m getting three or five a day,” he said in September.

The pandemic’s opportunities also fell inequitably upon the scientific community. In March, Congress awarded $75 million to the National Science Foundation to fast-track studies that could quickly contribute to the pandemic response. “That money just went ,” says Cassidy Sugimoto of Indiana University, who was on rotation at the agency at the time. “It was a first-come, first-served environment. It advantaged people who were aware of the system and could act upon it quickly.” But not all scientists could pivot to COVID‑19, or pivot with equal speed.

Among scientists, as in other fields, women do more child care, domestic work, and teaching than men, and are more often asked for emotional support by their students. These burdens increased as the pandemic took hold, leaving women scientists “less able to commit their time to learning about a new area of study, and less able to start a whole new research project,” says Molly M. King, a sociologist at Santa Clara University. Women’s research hours fell by nine percentage points more than did men’s because of the pressures of COVID‑19. And when COVID‑19 created new opportunities, men grabbed them more quickly. In the spring, the proportion of papers with women as first authors fell almost 44 percent in the preprint repository medRxiv, relative to 2019. And published COVID‑19 papers had 19 percent fewer women as first authors compared with papers from the same journals in the previous year. Men led more than 80 percent of national COVID‑19 task forces in 87 countries . Male scientists were quoted four times as frequently as female scientists in American news stories about the pandemic.

American scientists of color also found it harder to pivot than their white peers, because of unique challenges that sapped their time and energy. Black, Latino, and Indigenous scientists were most likely to have lost loved ones, adding mourning to their list of duties. Many grieved, too, after the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. They often faced questions from relatives who were mistrustful of the medical system, or were experiencing discriminatory care. They were suddenly tasked with helping their predominantly white institutions fight racism. Neil Lewis Jr. at Cornell, who studies racial health disparities, told me that many psychologists had long deemed his work irrelevant. “All of a sudden my inbox is drowning,” he said, while some of his own relatives have become ill and one has died.

Science suffers from the so-called Matthew effect, whereby small successes snowball into ever greater advantages, irrespective of merit. Similarly, early hindrances linger. Young researchers who could not pivot because they were too busy caring or grieving for others might suffer lasting consequences from an unproductive year. COVID‑19 “has really put the clock back in terms of closing the gap for women and underrepresented minorities,” Yale’s Akiko Iwasaki says. “Once we’re over the pandemic, we’ll need to fix it all again.”

COVID-19 has already changed science immensely, but if scientists are savvy, the most profound pivot is still to come—a grand reimagining of what medicine should be. In 1848, the Prussian government sent a young physician named Rudolf Virchow to investigate a typhus epidemic in Upper Silesia. Virchow didn’t know what caused the devastating disease, but he realized its spread was possible because of malnutrition, hazardous working conditions, crowded housing, poor sanitation, and the inattention of civil servants and aristocrats—problems that require social and political reforms. “Medicine is a social science,” Virchow said, “and politics is nothing but medicine in larger scale.”

This viewpoint fell by the wayside after germ theory became mainstream in the late 19th century. When scientists discovered the microbes responsible for tuberculosis, plague, cholera, dysentery, and syphilis, most fixated on these newly identified nemeses. Societal factors were seen as overly political distractions for researchers who sought to “be as ‘objective’ as possible,” says Elaine Hernandez, a medical sociologist at Indiana University. In the U.S., medicine fractured. New departments of sociology and cultural anthropology kept their eye on the societal side of health, while the nation’s first schools of public health focused instead on fights between germs and individuals. This rift widened as improvements in hygiene, living standards, nutrition, and sanitation lengthened life spans: The more social conditions improved, the more readily they could be ignored.

The ideological pivot away from social medicine began to reverse in the second half of the 20th century. The women’s-rights and civil-rights movements, the rise of environmentalism, and anti-war protests created a generation of scholars who questioned “the legitimacy, ideology, and practice of any science … that disregards social and economic inequality,” wrote Nancy Krieger of Harvard . Beginning in the 1980s, this new wave of social epidemiologists once again studied how poverty, privilege, and living conditions affect a person’s health—to a degree even Virchow hadn’t imagined. But as COVID‑19 has shown, the reintegration is not yet complete.

Politicians initially described COVID‑19 as a “great equalizer,” but when states began releasing demographic data, it was immediately clear that the disease was disproportionately infecting and killing people of color . These disparities aren’t biological. They stem from decades of discrimination and segregation that left minority communities in poorer neighborhoods with low-paying jobs, more health problems, and less access to health care—the same kind of problems that Virchow identified more than 170 years ago.

From the September 2020 issue: How the pandemic defeated America

Simple acts like wearing a mask and staying at home, which rely on people tolerating discomfort for the collective good, became society’s main defenses against the virus in the many months without effective drugs or vaccines. These are known as nonpharmaceutical interventions—a name that betrays medicine’s biological bias. For most of 2020, these were the only interventions on offer, but they were nonetheless defined in opposition to the more highly prized drugs and vaccines.

In March, when the U.S. started shutting down, one of the biggest questions on the mind of Whitney Robinson of UNC at Chapel Hill was: Are our kids going to be out of school for two years? While biomedical scientists tend to focus on sickness and recovery, social epidemiologists like her “think about critical periods that can affect the trajectory of your life,” she told me. Disrupting a child’s schooling at the wrong time can affect their entire career, so scientists should have prioritized research to figure out whether and how schools could reopen safely. But most studies on the spread of COVID‑19 in schools were neither large in scope nor well-designed enough to be conclusive. No federal agency funded a large, nationwide study, even though the federal government had months to do so. The NIH received billions for COVID‑19 research , but the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development—one of its 27 constituent institutes and centers—got nothing.

The horrors that Rudolf Virchow saw in Upper Silesia radicalized him, pushing the future “father of modern pathology” to advocate for social reforms. The current pandemic has affected scientists in the same way. Calm researchers became incensed as potentially game-changing innovations like cheap diagnostic tests were squandered by a negligent administration and a muzzled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Austere publications like NEJM and Nature published explicitly political editorials castigating the Trump administration for its failures and encouraging voters to hold the president accountable. COVID‑19 could be the catalyst that fully reunifies the social and biological sides of medicine, bridging disciplines that have been separated for too long.

“To study COVID‑19 is not only to study the disease itself as a biological entity,” says Alondra Nelson, the president of the Social Science Research Council. “What looks like a single problem is actually all things, all at once. So what we’re actually studying is literally everything in society, at every scale, from supply chains to individual relationships.”

The scientific community spent the pre-pandemic years designing faster ways of doing experiments, sharing data, and developing vaccines, allowing it to mobilize quickly when COVID‑19 emerged. Its goal now should be to address its many lingering weaknesses. Warped incentives, wasteful practices, overconfidence, inequality, a biomedical bias—COVID‑19 has exposed them all. And in doing so, it offers the world of science a chance to practice one of its most important qualities: self-correction.

* The print version of this article stated that the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were reported to be 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 infections. In fact, the vaccines prevent disease, not infection.

This article appears in the January/February 2021 print edition with the headline “The COVID-19 Manhattan Project.”

  • Research article
  • Open access
  • Published: 04 June 2021

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic: an overview of systematic reviews

  • Israel Júnior Borges do Nascimento 1 , 2 ,
  • Dónal P. O’Mathúna 3 , 4 ,
  • Thilo Caspar von Groote 5 ,
  • Hebatullah Mohamed Abdulazeem 6 ,
  • Ishanka Weerasekara 7 , 8 ,
  • Ana Marusic 9 ,
  • Livia Puljak   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8467-6061 10 ,
  • Vinicius Tassoni Civile 11 ,
  • Irena Zakarija-Grkovic 9 ,
  • Tina Poklepovic Pericic 9 ,
  • Alvaro Nagib Atallah 11 ,
  • Santino Filoso 12 ,
  • Nicola Luigi Bragazzi 13 &
  • Milena Soriano Marcolino 1

On behalf of the International Network of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (InterNetCOVID-19)

BMC Infectious Diseases volume  21 , Article number:  525 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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Navigating the rapidly growing body of scientific literature on the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is challenging, and ongoing critical appraisal of this output is essential. We aimed to summarize and critically appraise systematic reviews of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in humans that were available at the beginning of the pandemic.

Nine databases (Medline, EMBASE, Cochrane Library, CINAHL, Web of Sciences, PDQ-Evidence, WHO’s Global Research, LILACS, and Epistemonikos) were searched from December 1, 2019, to March 24, 2020. Systematic reviews analyzing primary studies of COVID-19 were included. Two authors independently undertook screening, selection, extraction (data on clinical symptoms, prevalence, pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions, diagnostic test assessment, laboratory, and radiological findings), and quality assessment (AMSTAR 2). A meta-analysis was performed of the prevalence of clinical outcomes.

Eighteen systematic reviews were included; one was empty (did not identify any relevant study). Using AMSTAR 2, confidence in the results of all 18 reviews was rated as “critically low”. Identified symptoms of COVID-19 were (range values of point estimates): fever (82–95%), cough with or without sputum (58–72%), dyspnea (26–59%), myalgia or muscle fatigue (29–51%), sore throat (10–13%), headache (8–12%) and gastrointestinal complaints (5–9%). Severe symptoms were more common in men. Elevated C-reactive protein and lactate dehydrogenase, and slightly elevated aspartate and alanine aminotransferase, were commonly described. Thrombocytopenia and elevated levels of procalcitonin and cardiac troponin I were associated with severe disease. A frequent finding on chest imaging was uni- or bilateral multilobar ground-glass opacity. A single review investigated the impact of medication (chloroquine) but found no verifiable clinical data. All-cause mortality ranged from 0.3 to 13.9%.


In this overview of systematic reviews, we analyzed evidence from the first 18 systematic reviews that were published after the emergence of COVID-19. However, confidence in the results of all reviews was “critically low”. Thus, systematic reviews that were published early on in the pandemic were of questionable usefulness. Even during public health emergencies, studies and systematic reviews should adhere to established methodological standards.

Peer Review reports

The spread of the “Severe Acute Respiratory Coronavirus 2” (SARS-CoV-2), the causal agent of COVID-19, was characterized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2020 and has triggered an international public health emergency [ 1 ]. The numbers of confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19 are rapidly escalating, counting in millions [ 2 ], causing massive economic strain, and escalating healthcare and public health expenses [ 3 , 4 ].

The research community has responded by publishing an impressive number of scientific reports related to COVID-19. The world was alerted to the new disease at the beginning of 2020 [ 1 ], and by mid-March 2020, more than 2000 articles had been published on COVID-19 in scholarly journals, with 25% of them containing original data [ 5 ]. The living map of COVID-19 evidence, curated by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre), contained more than 40,000 records by February 2021 [ 6 ]. More than 100,000 records on PubMed were labeled as “SARS-CoV-2 literature, sequence, and clinical content” by February 2021 [ 7 ].

Due to publication speed, the research community has voiced concerns regarding the quality and reproducibility of evidence produced during the COVID-19 pandemic, warning of the potential damaging approach of “publish first, retract later” [ 8 ]. It appears that these concerns are not unfounded, as it has been reported that COVID-19 articles were overrepresented in the pool of retracted articles in 2020 [ 9 ]. These concerns about inadequate evidence are of major importance because they can lead to poor clinical practice and inappropriate policies [ 10 ].

Systematic reviews are a cornerstone of today’s evidence-informed decision-making. By synthesizing all relevant evidence regarding a particular topic, systematic reviews reflect the current scientific knowledge. Systematic reviews are considered to be at the highest level in the hierarchy of evidence and should be used to make informed decisions. However, with high numbers of systematic reviews of different scope and methodological quality being published, overviews of multiple systematic reviews that assess their methodological quality are essential [ 11 , 12 , 13 ]. An overview of systematic reviews helps identify and organize the literature and highlights areas of priority in decision-making.

In this overview of systematic reviews, we aimed to summarize and critically appraise systematic reviews of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in humans that were available at the beginning of the pandemic.


Research question.

This overview’s primary objective was to summarize and critically appraise systematic reviews that assessed any type of primary clinical data from patients infected with SARS-CoV-2. Our research question was purposefully broad because we wanted to analyze as many systematic reviews as possible that were available early following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Study design

We conducted an overview of systematic reviews. The idea for this overview originated in a protocol for a systematic review submitted to PROSPERO (CRD42020170623), which indicated a plan to conduct an overview.

Overviews of systematic reviews use explicit and systematic methods for searching and identifying multiple systematic reviews addressing related research questions in the same field to extract and analyze evidence across important outcomes. Overviews of systematic reviews are in principle similar to systematic reviews of interventions, but the unit of analysis is a systematic review [ 14 , 15 , 16 ].

We used the overview methodology instead of other evidence synthesis methods to allow us to collate and appraise multiple systematic reviews on this topic, and to extract and analyze their results across relevant topics [ 17 ]. The overview and meta-analysis of systematic reviews allowed us to investigate the methodological quality of included studies, summarize results, and identify specific areas of available or limited evidence, thereby strengthening the current understanding of this novel disease and guiding future research [ 13 ].

A reporting guideline for overviews of reviews is currently under development, i.e., Preferred Reporting Items for Overviews of Reviews (PRIOR) [ 18 ]. As the PRIOR checklist is still not published, this study was reported following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) 2009 statement [ 19 ]. The methodology used in this review was adapted from the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions and also followed established methodological considerations for analyzing existing systematic reviews [ 14 ].

Approval of a research ethics committee was not necessary as the study analyzed only publicly available articles.

Eligibility criteria

Systematic reviews were included if they analyzed primary data from patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 as confirmed by RT-PCR or another pre-specified diagnostic technique. Eligible reviews covered all topics related to COVID-19 including, but not limited to, those that reported clinical symptoms, diagnostic methods, therapeutic interventions, laboratory findings, or radiological results. Both full manuscripts and abbreviated versions, such as letters, were eligible.

No restrictions were imposed on the design of the primary studies included within the systematic reviews, the last search date, whether the review included meta-analyses or language. Reviews related to SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses were eligible, but from those reviews, we analyzed only data related to SARS-CoV-2.

No consensus definition exists for a systematic review [ 20 ], and debates continue about the defining characteristics of a systematic review [ 21 ]. Cochrane’s guidance for overviews of reviews recommends setting pre-established criteria for making decisions around inclusion [ 14 ]. That is supported by a recent scoping review about guidance for overviews of systematic reviews [ 22 ].

Thus, for this study, we defined a systematic review as a research report which searched for primary research studies on a specific topic using an explicit search strategy, had a detailed description of the methods with explicit inclusion criteria provided, and provided a summary of the included studies either in narrative or quantitative format (such as a meta-analysis). Cochrane and non-Cochrane systematic reviews were considered eligible for inclusion, with or without meta-analysis, and regardless of the study design, language restriction and methodology of the included primary studies. To be eligible for inclusion, reviews had to be clearly analyzing data related to SARS-CoV-2 (associated or not with other viruses). We excluded narrative reviews without those characteristics as these are less likely to be replicable and are more prone to bias.

Scoping reviews and rapid reviews were eligible for inclusion in this overview if they met our pre-defined inclusion criteria noted above. We included reviews that addressed SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses if they reported separate data regarding SARS-CoV-2.

Information sources

Nine databases were searched for eligible records published between December 1, 2019, and March 24, 2020: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews via Cochrane Library, PubMed, EMBASE, CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature), Web of Sciences, LILACS (Latin American and Caribbean Health Sciences Literature), PDQ-Evidence, WHO’s Global Research on Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), and Epistemonikos.

The comprehensive search strategy for each database is provided in Additional file 1 and was designed and conducted in collaboration with an information specialist. All retrieved records were primarily processed in EndNote, where duplicates were removed, and records were then imported into the Covidence platform [ 23 ]. In addition to database searches, we screened reference lists of reviews included after screening records retrieved via databases.

Study selection

All searches, screening of titles and abstracts, and record selection, were performed independently by two investigators using the Covidence platform [ 23 ]. Articles deemed potentially eligible were retrieved for full-text screening carried out independently by two investigators. Discrepancies at all stages were resolved by consensus. During the screening, records published in languages other than English were translated by a native/fluent speaker.

Data collection process

We custom designed a data extraction table for this study, which was piloted by two authors independently. Data extraction was performed independently by two authors. Conflicts were resolved by consensus or by consulting a third researcher.

We extracted the following data: article identification data (authors’ name and journal of publication), search period, number of databases searched, population or settings considered, main results and outcomes observed, and number of participants. From Web of Science (Clarivate Analytics, Philadelphia, PA, USA), we extracted journal rank (quartile) and Journal Impact Factor (JIF).

We categorized the following as primary outcomes: all-cause mortality, need for and length of mechanical ventilation, length of hospitalization (in days), admission to intensive care unit (yes/no), and length of stay in the intensive care unit.

The following outcomes were categorized as exploratory: diagnostic methods used for detection of the virus, male to female ratio, clinical symptoms, pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions, laboratory findings (full blood count, liver enzymes, C-reactive protein, d-dimer, albumin, lipid profile, serum electrolytes, blood vitamin levels, glucose levels, and any other important biomarkers), and radiological findings (using radiography, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging or ultrasound).

We also collected data on reporting guidelines and requirements for the publication of systematic reviews and meta-analyses from journal websites where included reviews were published.

Quality assessment in individual reviews

Two researchers independently assessed the reviews’ quality using the “A MeaSurement Tool to Assess Systematic Reviews 2 (AMSTAR 2)”. We acknowledge that the AMSTAR 2 was created as “a critical appraisal tool for systematic reviews that include randomized or non-randomized studies of healthcare interventions, or both” [ 24 ]. However, since AMSTAR 2 was designed for systematic reviews of intervention trials, and we included additional types of systematic reviews, we adjusted some AMSTAR 2 ratings and reported these in Additional file 2 .

Adherence to each item was rated as follows: yes, partial yes, no, or not applicable (such as when a meta-analysis was not conducted). The overall confidence in the results of the review is rated as “critically low”, “low”, “moderate” or “high”, according to the AMSTAR 2 guidance based on seven critical domains, which are items 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 as defined by AMSTAR 2 authors [ 24 ]. We reported our adherence ratings for transparency of our decision with accompanying explanations, for each item, in each included review.

One of the included systematic reviews was conducted by some members of this author team [ 25 ]. This review was initially assessed independently by two authors who were not co-authors of that review to prevent the risk of bias in assessing this study.

Synthesis of results

For data synthesis, we prepared a table summarizing each systematic review. Graphs illustrating the mortality rate and clinical symptoms were created. We then prepared a narrative summary of the methods, findings, study strengths, and limitations.

For analysis of the prevalence of clinical outcomes, we extracted data on the number of events and the total number of patients to perform proportional meta-analysis using RStudio© software, with the “meta” package (version 4.9–6), using the “metaprop” function for reviews that did not perform a meta-analysis, excluding case studies because of the absence of variance. For reviews that did not perform a meta-analysis, we presented pooled results of proportions with their respective confidence intervals (95%) by the inverse variance method with a random-effects model, using the DerSimonian-Laird estimator for τ 2 . We adjusted data using Freeman-Tukey double arcosen transformation. Confidence intervals were calculated using the Clopper-Pearson method for individual studies. We created forest plots using the RStudio© software, with the “metafor” package (version 2.1–0) and “forest” function.

Managing overlapping systematic reviews

Some of the included systematic reviews that address the same or similar research questions may include the same primary studies in overviews. Including such overlapping reviews may introduce bias when outcome data from the same primary study are included in the analyses of an overview multiple times. Thus, in summaries of evidence, multiple-counting of the same outcome data will give data from some primary studies too much influence [ 14 ]. In this overview, we did not exclude overlapping systematic reviews because, according to Cochrane’s guidance, it may be appropriate to include all relevant reviews’ results if the purpose of the overview is to present and describe the current body of evidence on a topic [ 14 ]. To avoid any bias in summary estimates associated with overlapping reviews, we generated forest plots showing data from individual systematic reviews, but the results were not pooled because some primary studies were included in multiple reviews.

Our search retrieved 1063 publications, of which 175 were duplicates. Most publications were excluded after the title and abstract analysis ( n = 860). Among the 28 studies selected for full-text screening, 10 were excluded for the reasons described in Additional file 3 , and 18 were included in the final analysis (Fig. 1 ) [ 25 , 26 , 27 , 28 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 , 40 , 41 , 42 ]. Reference list screening did not retrieve any additional systematic reviews.

figure 1

PRISMA flow diagram

Characteristics of included reviews

Summary features of 18 systematic reviews are presented in Table 1 . They were published in 14 different journals. Only four of these journals had specific requirements for systematic reviews (with or without meta-analysis): European Journal of Internal Medicine, Journal of Clinical Medicine, Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Clinical Research in Cardiology . Two journals reported that they published only invited reviews ( Journal of Medical Virology and Clinica Chimica Acta ). Three systematic reviews in our study were published as letters; one was labeled as a scoping review and another as a rapid review (Table 2 ).

All reviews were published in English, in first quartile (Q1) journals, with JIF ranging from 1.692 to 6.062. One review was empty, meaning that its search did not identify any relevant studies; i.e., no primary studies were included [ 36 ]. The remaining 17 reviews included 269 unique studies; the majority ( N = 211; 78%) were included in only a single review included in our study (range: 1 to 12). Primary studies included in the reviews were published between December 2019 and March 18, 2020, and comprised case reports, case series, cohorts, and other observational studies. We found only one review that included randomized clinical trials [ 38 ]. In the included reviews, systematic literature searches were performed from 2019 (entire year) up to March 9, 2020. Ten systematic reviews included meta-analyses. The list of primary studies found in the included systematic reviews is shown in Additional file 4 , as well as the number of reviews in which each primary study was included.

Population and study designs

Most of the reviews analyzed data from patients with COVID-19 who developed pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), or any other correlated complication. One review aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of using surgical masks on preventing transmission of the virus [ 36 ], one review was focused on pediatric patients [ 34 ], and one review investigated COVID-19 in pregnant women [ 37 ]. Most reviews assessed clinical symptoms, laboratory findings, or radiological results.

Systematic review findings

The summary of findings from individual reviews is shown in Table 2 . Overall, all-cause mortality ranged from 0.3 to 13.9% (Fig. 2 ).

figure 2

A meta-analysis of the prevalence of mortality

Clinical symptoms

Seven reviews described the main clinical manifestations of COVID-19 [ 26 , 28 , 29 , 34 , 35 , 39 , 41 ]. Three of them provided only a narrative discussion of symptoms [ 26 , 34 , 35 ]. In the reviews that performed a statistical analysis of the incidence of different clinical symptoms, symptoms in patients with COVID-19 were (range values of point estimates): fever (82–95%), cough with or without sputum (58–72%), dyspnea (26–59%), myalgia or muscle fatigue (29–51%), sore throat (10–13%), headache (8–12%), gastrointestinal disorders, such as diarrhea, nausea or vomiting (5.0–9.0%), and others (including, in one study only: dizziness 12.1%) (Figs. 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 and 9 ). Three reviews assessed cough with and without sputum together; only one review assessed sputum production itself (28.5%).

figure 3

A meta-analysis of the prevalence of fever

figure 4

A meta-analysis of the prevalence of cough

figure 5

A meta-analysis of the prevalence of dyspnea

figure 6

A meta-analysis of the prevalence of fatigue or myalgia

figure 7

A meta-analysis of the prevalence of headache

figure 8

A meta-analysis of the prevalence of gastrointestinal disorders

figure 9

A meta-analysis of the prevalence of sore throat

Diagnostic aspects

Three reviews described methodologies, protocols, and tools used for establishing the diagnosis of COVID-19 [ 26 , 34 , 38 ]. The use of respiratory swabs (nasal or pharyngeal) or blood specimens to assess the presence of SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid using RT-PCR assays was the most commonly used diagnostic method mentioned in the included studies. These diagnostic tests have been widely used, but their precise sensitivity and specificity remain unknown. One review included a Chinese study with clinical diagnosis with no confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 infection (patients were diagnosed with COVID-19 if they presented with at least two symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, together with laboratory and chest radiography abnormalities) [ 34 ].

Therapeutic possibilities

Pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions (supportive therapies) used in treating patients with COVID-19 were reported in five reviews [ 25 , 27 , 34 , 35 , 38 ]. Antivirals used empirically for COVID-19 treatment were reported in seven reviews [ 25 , 27 , 34 , 35 , 37 , 38 , 41 ]; most commonly used were protease inhibitors (lopinavir, ritonavir, darunavir), nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (tenofovir), nucleotide analogs (remdesivir, galidesivir, ganciclovir), and neuraminidase inhibitors (oseltamivir). Umifenovir, a membrane fusion inhibitor, was investigated in two studies [ 25 , 35 ]. Possible supportive interventions analyzed were different types of oxygen supplementation and breathing support (invasive or non-invasive ventilation) [ 25 ]. The use of antibiotics, both empirically and to treat secondary pneumonia, was reported in six studies [ 25 , 26 , 27 , 34 , 35 , 38 ]. One review specifically assessed evidence on the efficacy and safety of the anti-malaria drug chloroquine [ 27 ]. It identified 23 ongoing trials investigating the potential of chloroquine as a therapeutic option for COVID-19, but no verifiable clinical outcomes data. The use of mesenchymal stem cells, antifungals, and glucocorticoids were described in four reviews [ 25 , 34 , 35 , 38 ].

Laboratory and radiological findings

Of the 18 reviews included in this overview, eight analyzed laboratory parameters in patients with COVID-19 [ 25 , 29 , 30 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 39 ]; elevated C-reactive protein levels, associated with lymphocytopenia, elevated lactate dehydrogenase, as well as slightly elevated aspartate and alanine aminotransferase (AST, ALT) were commonly described in those eight reviews. Lippi et al. assessed cardiac troponin I (cTnI) [ 25 ], procalcitonin [ 32 ], and platelet count [ 33 ] in COVID-19 patients. Elevated levels of procalcitonin [ 32 ] and cTnI [ 30 ] were more likely to be associated with a severe disease course (requiring intensive care unit admission and intubation). Furthermore, thrombocytopenia was frequently observed in patients with complicated COVID-19 infections [ 33 ].

Chest imaging (chest radiography and/or computed tomography) features were assessed in six reviews, all of which described a frequent pattern of local or bilateral multilobar ground-glass opacity [ 25 , 34 , 35 , 39 , 40 , 41 ]. Those six reviews showed that septal thickening, bronchiectasis, pleural and cardiac effusions, halo signs, and pneumothorax were observed in patients suffering from COVID-19.

Quality of evidence in individual systematic reviews

Table 3 shows the detailed results of the quality assessment of 18 systematic reviews, including the assessment of individual items and summary assessment. A detailed explanation for each decision in each review is available in Additional file 5 .

Using AMSTAR 2 criteria, confidence in the results of all 18 reviews was rated as “critically low” (Table 3 ). Common methodological drawbacks were: omission of prospective protocol submission or publication; use of inappropriate search strategy: lack of independent and dual literature screening and data-extraction (or methodology unclear); absence of an explanation for heterogeneity among the studies included; lack of reasons for study exclusion (or rationale unclear).

Risk of bias assessment, based on a reported methodological tool, and quality of evidence appraisal, in line with the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) method, were reported only in one review [ 25 ]. Five reviews presented a table summarizing bias, using various risk of bias tools [ 25 , 29 , 39 , 40 , 41 ]. One review analyzed “study quality” [ 37 ]. One review mentioned the risk of bias assessment in the methodology but did not provide any related analysis [ 28 ].

This overview of systematic reviews analyzed the first 18 systematic reviews published after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, up to March 24, 2020, with primary studies involving more than 60,000 patients. Using AMSTAR-2, we judged that our confidence in all those reviews was “critically low”. Ten reviews included meta-analyses. The reviews presented data on clinical manifestations, laboratory and radiological findings, and interventions. We found no systematic reviews on the utility of diagnostic tests.

Symptoms were reported in seven reviews; most of the patients had a fever, cough, dyspnea, myalgia or muscle fatigue, and gastrointestinal disorders such as diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. Olfactory dysfunction (anosmia or dysosmia) has been described in patients infected with COVID-19 [ 43 ]; however, this was not reported in any of the reviews included in this overview. During the SARS outbreak in 2002, there were reports of impairment of the sense of smell associated with the disease [ 44 , 45 ].

The reported mortality rates ranged from 0.3 to 14% in the included reviews. Mortality estimates are influenced by the transmissibility rate (basic reproduction number), availability of diagnostic tools, notification policies, asymptomatic presentations of the disease, resources for disease prevention and control, and treatment facilities; variability in the mortality rate fits the pattern of emerging infectious diseases [ 46 ]. Furthermore, the reported cases did not consider asymptomatic cases, mild cases where individuals have not sought medical treatment, and the fact that many countries had limited access to diagnostic tests or have implemented testing policies later than the others. Considering the lack of reviews assessing diagnostic testing (sensitivity, specificity, and predictive values of RT-PCT or immunoglobulin tests), and the preponderance of studies that assessed only symptomatic individuals, considerable imprecision around the calculated mortality rates existed in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Few reviews included treatment data. Those reviews described studies considered to be at a very low level of evidence: usually small, retrospective studies with very heterogeneous populations. Seven reviews analyzed laboratory parameters; those reviews could have been useful for clinicians who attend patients suspected of COVID-19 in emergency services worldwide, such as assessing which patients need to be reassessed more frequently.

All systematic reviews scored poorly on the AMSTAR 2 critical appraisal tool for systematic reviews. Most of the original studies included in the reviews were case series and case reports, impacting the quality of evidence. Such evidence has major implications for clinical practice and the use of these reviews in evidence-based practice and policy. Clinicians, patients, and policymakers can only have the highest confidence in systematic review findings if high-quality systematic review methodologies are employed. The urgent need for information during a pandemic does not justify poor quality reporting.

We acknowledge that there are numerous challenges associated with analyzing COVID-19 data during a pandemic [ 47 ]. High-quality evidence syntheses are needed for decision-making, but each type of evidence syntheses is associated with its inherent challenges.

The creation of classic systematic reviews requires considerable time and effort; with massive research output, they quickly become outdated, and preparing updated versions also requires considerable time. A recent study showed that updates of non-Cochrane systematic reviews are published a median of 5 years after the publication of the previous version [ 48 ].

Authors may register a review and then abandon it [ 49 ], but the existence of a public record that is not updated may lead other authors to believe that the review is still ongoing. A quarter of Cochrane review protocols remains unpublished as completed systematic reviews 8 years after protocol publication [ 50 ].

Rapid reviews can be used to summarize the evidence, but they involve methodological sacrifices and simplifications to produce information promptly, with inconsistent methodological approaches [ 51 ]. However, rapid reviews are justified in times of public health emergencies, and even Cochrane has resorted to publishing rapid reviews in response to the COVID-19 crisis [ 52 ]. Rapid reviews were eligible for inclusion in this overview, but only one of the 18 reviews included in this study was labeled as a rapid review.

Ideally, COVID-19 evidence would be continually summarized in a series of high-quality living systematic reviews, types of evidence synthesis defined as “ a systematic review which is continually updated, incorporating relevant new evidence as it becomes available ” [ 53 ]. However, conducting living systematic reviews requires considerable resources, calling into question the sustainability of such evidence synthesis over long periods [ 54 ].

Research reports about COVID-19 will contribute to research waste if they are poorly designed, poorly reported, or simply not necessary. In principle, systematic reviews should help reduce research waste as they usually provide recommendations for further research that is needed or may advise that sufficient evidence exists on a particular topic [ 55 ]. However, systematic reviews can also contribute to growing research waste when they are not needed, or poorly conducted and reported. Our present study clearly shows that most of the systematic reviews that were published early on in the COVID-19 pandemic could be categorized as research waste, as our confidence in their results is critically low.

Our study has some limitations. One is that for AMSTAR 2 assessment we relied on information available in publications; we did not attempt to contact study authors for clarifications or additional data. In three reviews, the methodological quality appraisal was challenging because they were published as letters, or labeled as rapid communications. As a result, various details about their review process were not included, leading to AMSTAR 2 questions being answered as “not reported”, resulting in low confidence scores. Full manuscripts might have provided additional information that could have led to higher confidence in the results. In other words, low scores could reflect incomplete reporting, not necessarily low-quality review methods. To make their review available more rapidly and more concisely, the authors may have omitted methodological details. A general issue during a crisis is that speed and completeness must be balanced. However, maintaining high standards requires proper resourcing and commitment to ensure that the users of systematic reviews can have high confidence in the results.

Furthermore, we used adjusted AMSTAR 2 scoring, as the tool was designed for critical appraisal of reviews of interventions. Some reviews may have received lower scores than actually warranted in spite of these adjustments.

Another limitation of our study may be the inclusion of multiple overlapping reviews, as some included reviews included the same primary studies. According to the Cochrane Handbook, including overlapping reviews may be appropriate when the review’s aim is “ to present and describe the current body of systematic review evidence on a topic ” [ 12 ], which was our aim. To avoid bias with summarizing evidence from overlapping reviews, we presented the forest plots without summary estimates. The forest plots serve to inform readers about the effect sizes for outcomes that were reported in each review.

Several authors from this study have contributed to one of the reviews identified [ 25 ]. To reduce the risk of any bias, two authors who did not co-author the review in question initially assessed its quality and limitations.

Finally, we note that the systematic reviews included in our overview may have had issues that our analysis did not identify because we did not analyze their primary studies to verify the accuracy of the data and information they presented. We give two examples to substantiate this possibility. Lovato et al. wrote a commentary on the review of Sun et al. [ 41 ], in which they criticized the authors’ conclusion that sore throat is rare in COVID-19 patients [ 56 ]. Lovato et al. highlighted that multiple studies included in Sun et al. did not accurately describe participants’ clinical presentations, warning that only three studies clearly reported data on sore throat [ 56 ].

In another example, Leung [ 57 ] warned about the review of Li, L.Q. et al. [ 29 ]: “ it is possible that this statistic was computed using overlapped samples, therefore some patients were double counted ”. Li et al. responded to Leung that it is uncertain whether the data overlapped, as they used data from published articles and did not have access to the original data; they also reported that they requested original data and that they plan to re-do their analyses once they receive them; they also urged readers to treat the data with caution [ 58 ]. This points to the evolving nature of evidence during a crisis.

Our study’s strength is that this overview adds to the current knowledge by providing a comprehensive summary of all the evidence synthesis about COVID-19 available early after the onset of the pandemic. This overview followed strict methodological criteria, including a comprehensive and sensitive search strategy and a standard tool for methodological appraisal of systematic reviews.

In conclusion, in this overview of systematic reviews, we analyzed evidence from the first 18 systematic reviews that were published after the emergence of COVID-19. However, confidence in the results of all the reviews was “critically low”. Thus, systematic reviews that were published early on in the pandemic could be categorized as research waste. Even during public health emergencies, studies and systematic reviews should adhere to established methodological standards to provide patients, clinicians, and decision-makers trustworthy evidence.

Availability of data and materials

All data collected and analyzed within this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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We thank Catherine Henderson DPhil from Swanscoe Communications for pro bono medical writing and editing support. We acknowledge support from the Covidence Team, specifically Anneliese Arno. We thank the whole International Network of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (InterNetCOVID-19) for their commitment and involvement. Members of the InterNetCOVID-19 are listed in Additional file 6 . We thank Pavel Cerny and Roger Crosthwaite for guiding the team supervisor (IJBN) on human resources management.

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Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI, USA

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IJBN conceived the research idea and worked as a project coordinator. DPOM, TCVG, HMA, IW, AM, LP, VTC, IZG, TPP, ANA, SF, NLB and MSM were involved in data curation, formal analysis, investigation, methodology, and initial draft writing. All authors revised the manuscript critically for the content. The author(s) read and approved the final manuscript.

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Supplementary Information

Additional file 1: appendix 1..

Search strategies used in the study.

Additional file 2: Appendix 2.

Adjusted scoring of AMSTAR 2 used in this study for systematic reviews of studies that did not analyze interventions.

Additional file 3: Appendix 3.

List of excluded studies, with reasons.

Additional file 4: Appendix 4.

Table of overlapping studies, containing the list of primary studies included, their visual overlap in individual systematic reviews, and the number in how many reviews each primary study was included.

Additional file 5: Appendix 5.

A detailed explanation of AMSTAR scoring for each item in each review.

Additional file 6: Appendix 6.

List of members and affiliates of International Network of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (InterNetCOVID-19).

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Borges do Nascimento, I.J., O’Mathúna, D.P., von Groote, T.C. et al. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic: an overview of systematic reviews. BMC Infect Dis 21 , 525 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12879-021-06214-4

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article essay about covid 19

Writing about COVID-19 in a college admission essay

by: Venkates Swaminathan | Updated: September 14, 2020

Print article

Writing about COVID-19 in your college admission essay

For students applying to college using the CommonApp, there are several different places where students and counselors can address the pandemic’s impact. The different sections have differing goals. You must understand how to use each section for its appropriate use.

The CommonApp COVID-19 question

First, the CommonApp this year has an additional question specifically about COVID-19 :

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

This question seeks to understand the adversity that students may have had to face due to the pandemic, the move to online education, or the shelter-in-place rules. You don’t have to answer this question if the impact on you wasn’t particularly severe. Some examples of things students should discuss include:

  • The student or a family member had COVID-19 or suffered other illnesses due to confinement during the pandemic.
  • The candidate had to deal with personal or family issues, such as abusive living situations or other safety concerns
  • The student suffered from a lack of internet access and other online learning challenges.
  • Students who dealt with problems registering for or taking standardized tests and AP exams.

Jeff Schiffman of the Tulane University admissions office has a blog about this section. He recommends students ask themselves several questions as they go about answering this section:

  • Are my experiences different from others’?
  • Are there noticeable changes on my transcript?
  • Am I aware of my privilege?
  • Am I specific? Am I explaining rather than complaining?
  • Is this information being included elsewhere on my application?

If you do answer this section, be brief and to-the-point.

Counselor recommendations and school profiles

Second, counselors will, in their counselor forms and school profiles on the CommonApp, address how the school handled the pandemic and how it might have affected students, specifically as it relates to:

  • Grading scales and policies
  • Graduation requirements
  • Instructional methods
  • Schedules and course offerings
  • Testing requirements
  • Your academic calendar
  • Other extenuating circumstances

Students don’t have to mention these matters in their application unless something unusual happened.

Writing about COVID-19 in your main essay

Write about your experiences during the pandemic in your main college essay if your experience is personal, relevant, and the most important thing to discuss in your college admission essay. That you had to stay home and study online isn’t sufficient, as millions of other students faced the same situation. But sometimes, it can be appropriate and helpful to write about something related to the pandemic in your essay. For example:

  • One student developed a website for a local comic book store. The store might not have survived without the ability for people to order comic books online. The student had a long-standing relationship with the store, and it was an institution that created a community for students who otherwise felt left out.
  • One student started a YouTube channel to help other students with academic subjects he was very familiar with and began tutoring others.
  • Some students used their extra time that was the result of the stay-at-home orders to take online courses pursuing topics they are genuinely interested in or developing new interests, like a foreign language or music.

Experiences like this can be good topics for the CommonApp essay as long as they reflect something genuinely important about the student. For many students whose lives have been shaped by this pandemic, it can be a critical part of their college application.

Want more? Read 6 ways to improve a college essay , What the &%$! should I write about in my college essay , and Just how important is a college admissions essay? .

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Collection  29 March 2022

2021 Top 25 COVID-19 Articles

The 25 most downloaded  Nature Communications  articles* on COVID-19 published in 2021 illustrate the collaborative efforts of the international community to combat the ongoing pandemic. These papers highlight valuable research into the biology of coronavirus infection, its detection, treatment as well as into vaccine development and the epidemiology of the disease.

Browse all Top 25 subject area collections  here .

*Data obtained from SN Insights (based on Digital Science's Dimensions) and normalised to account for articles published later in the year.

Microscopic view of 3D spherical viruses

Research highlights

article essay about covid 19

Anti-spike antibody response to natural SARS-CoV-2 infection in the general population

Most people who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 seroconvert within a few weeks, but the determinants and duration of the antibody response are not known. Here, the authors characterise these features of the immune response using data from a large representative community sample of the UK population.

  • Philippa C. Matthews
  • the COVID-19 Infection Survey team

article essay about covid 19

Mortality outcomes with hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in COVID-19 from an international collaborative meta-analysis of randomized trials

Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have been investigated as a potential treatment for Covid-19 in several clinical trials. Here the authors report a meta-analysis of published and unpublished trials, and show that treatment with hydroxychloroquine for patients with Covid-19 was associated with increased mortality, and there was no benefit from chloroquine.

  • Cathrine Axfors
  • Andreas M. Schmitt
  • Lars G. Hemkens

article essay about covid 19

Malignant cerebral infarction after ChAdOx1 nCov-19 vaccination: a catastrophic variant of vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia

Vaccination is an effective strategy in suppressing COVID-19 pandemic, but rare adverse effects have been reported, including cerebral venous thrombosis. Here the authors report two cases of middle cerebral artery infarct within 9-10 days following ChAdOx1 nCov-19 vaccination that also manifest pulmonary and portal vein thrombosis.

  • M. De Michele
  • M. Iacobucci

article essay about covid 19

Correlation of SARS-CoV-2-breakthrough infections to time-from-vaccine

The duration of effectiveness of SARS-CoV-2 vaccination is not yet known. Here, the authors present preliminary evidence of BNT162b2 vaccine waning across all age groups above 16, with a higher incidence of infection in people who received their second dose early in 2021 compared to later in the year.

  • Barak Mizrahi
  • Tal Patalon

article essay about covid 19

COVID-19 mRNA vaccine induced antibody responses against three SARS-CoV-2 variants

Emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants contain mutations in the spike protein that may affect vaccine efficacy. Here, Jalkanen et al . show, using sera from 180 BNT162b2-vaccinated health care workers, that neutralization of SARS-CoV2 variant B.1.1.7 is not affected, while neutralization of B.1.351 variant is five-fold reduced.

  • Pinja Jalkanen
  • Pekka Kolehmainen
  • Ilkka Julkunen

article essay about covid 19

Exposure to SARS-CoV-2 generates T-cell memory in the absence of a detectable viral infection

T cells compose a critical component of the immune response to coronavirus infection with SARS-CoV-2. Here the authors characterise the T cell response to SARS CoV-2 in patients and their close contacts, and show the presence of SARS-CoV-2 specific T cells in the absence of detectable virus infection.

  • Zhongfang Wang
  • Xiaoyun Yang

article essay about covid 19

Rapid decline of neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 among infected healthcare workers

The humoral immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection is not yet fully understood. Here, Marot et al. monitor the longitudinal profile and neutralizing activity of IgG, IgA, and IgM among 26 healthcare workers and provide evidence for a short-lasting humoral immune protection due to a decrease of neutralizing antibody titers within 3 months.

  • Stéphane Marot
  • Isabelle Malet
  • Anne-Geneviève Marcelin

article essay about covid 19

Efficacy and tolerability of bevacizumab in patients with severe Covid-19

In this single-arm clinical trial, the authors show that treatment of COVID-19 patients with bevacizumab, an anti-vascular endothelial growth factor drug, can improve PaO 2 /FiO 2 ratios and oxygen-support status. Relative to an external control group, bevacizumab shows clinical efficacy by improving oxygenation.

  • Jiaojiao Pang

article essay about covid 19

Evidence for SARS-CoV-2 related coronaviruses circulating in bats and pangolins in Southeast Asia

A bat origin for SARS-CoV-2 has been proposed. Here, by sampling wild Rhinolophus acuminatus bats from Thailand, the authors identified a SARS-CoV-2-related coronavirus (SC2r-CoV), designated as RacCS203, with 91.5% genome similarity to SARS-CoV-2, and show that sera obtained from bats and Malayan pangolin neutralize SARS-CoV-2.

  • Supaporn Wacharapluesadee
  • Chee Wah Tan
  • Lin-Fa Wang

article essay about covid 19

SARS-CoV-2 gene content and COVID-19 mutation impact by comparing 44 Sarbecovirus genomes

The SARS-CoV-2 gene set remains unresolved, hindering dissection of COVID-19 biology. Comparing 44 Sarbecovirus genomes provides a high-confidence protein-coding gene set. The study characterizes protein-level and nucleotide-level evolutionary constraints, and prioritizes functional mutations from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Irwin Jungreis
  • Rachel Sealfon
  • Manolis Kellis

article essay about covid 19

Neutralizing antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 in symptomatic COVID-19 is persistent and critical for survival

Antibody responses are critical for protection from developing severe COVID-19 following SARS-CoV-2 infection. Here the authors show that antibody responses against SARS-CoV-2 spike protein correlate with neutralizing capacity and protection, are not affected by heterologous boosting of influenza or common cold immunity, and can last up to 8 months.

  • Stefania Dispinseri
  • Massimiliano Secchi
  • Gabriella Scarlatti

article essay about covid 19

New-onset IgG autoantibodies in hospitalized patients with COVID-19

Infection with SARS-CoV2 and the development of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been linked to induction of autoimmunity and autoantibody production. Here the authors characterise the new-onset IgG autoantibody response in hospitalised patients with COVID-19 which they correlate to the magnitude of the SARS-CoV2 response.

  • Sarah Esther Chang
  • Paul J. Utz

article essay about covid 19

SARS-CoV-2 vaccine breakthrough infections with the alpha variant are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic among health care workers

Several COVID-19 vaccines have shown good efficacy in clinical trials. Here, the authors provide real world effectiveness data in a group of BNT162b2 vaccinated health care workers and find that breakthrough infections are asymptomatic or mild.

  • Francesca Rovida
  • Irene Cassaniti
  • Fausto Baldanti

article essay about covid 19

Duration and key determinants of infectious virus shedding in hospitalized patients with coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19)

Duration of infectious SARS-CoV-2 shedding is an important measure for improved disease control. Here, the authors use virus cultures of respiratory tract samples from COVID-19 patients and observe a median shedding duration of 8 days and a drop below 5% after 15,2 days post onset of symptoms.

  • Jeroen J. A. van Kampen
  • David A. M. C. van de Vijver
  • Annemiek A. van der Eijk

article essay about covid 19

A novel SARS-CoV-2 related coronavirus in bats from Cambodia

In this study, Delaune et al., isolate and characterise a SARS-CoV-2-related coronavirus from two bats sampled in Cambodia. Their findings suggest that the geographic distribution of SARS-CoV-2-related viruses is wider than previously reported.

  • Deborah Delaune
  • Veasna Duong

article essay about covid 19

Neutralizing antibody titres in SARS-CoV-2 infections

Here, the authors perform plaque reduction neutralization (PRNT) assays quantitating SARS-CoV-2 specific neutralizing antibodies from 195 patients in different disease states and find that patients with severe disease exhibit higher peaks of neutralizing antibody titres than patients with mild or asymptomatic infections and that serum neutralizing antibody persists for over 6 months in most people.

  • Eric H. Y. Lau
  • Owen T. Y. Tsang
  • Malik Peiris

article essay about covid 19

SARS-CoV-2 antibody dynamics and transmission from community-wide serological testing in the Italian municipality of Vo’

Vo’, Italy, is a unique setting for studying SARS-CoV-2 antibody dynamics because mass testing was conducted there early in the pandemic. Here, the authors perform two follow-up serological surveys and estimate seroprevalence, the extent of within-household transmission, and the impact of contact tracing.

  • Ilaria Dorigatti
  • Enrico Lavezzo
  • Andrea Crisanti

article essay about covid 19

Discrete SARS-CoV-2 antibody titers track with functional humoral stability

The extent of antibody protection against SARS-CoV-2 remains unclear. Here, using a cohort of 120 seroconverted individuals, the authors longitudinally characterize neutralization, Fc-function, and SARS-CoV-2 specific T cell responses, which they show to be prominent only in those subjects that elicited receptor-binding domain (RBD)-specific antibody titers above a certain threshold, suggesting that development of T cell responses to be related to anti-RBD Ab production.

  • Yannic C. Bartsch
  • Stephanie Fischinger
  • Galit Alter

article essay about covid 19

Mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 neutralization by shark variable new antigen receptors elucidated through X-ray crystallography

Shark antibodies (Variable New Antigen Receptors, VNARs) are the smallest naturally occurring antibody fragments. Here, the authors screen a VNAR phage display library against the SARS-CoV2 receptor binding domain (RBD) and identify VNARs that neutralize the SARSCoV-2 virus and discuss their mechanisms of viral neutralization.

  • Obinna C. Ubah
  • Eric W. Lake
  • Caroline J. Barelle

article essay about covid 19

Impact of the COVID-19 nonpharmaceutical interventions on influenza and other respiratory viral infections in New Zealand

New Zealand has been relatively successful in controlling COVID-19 due to implementation of strict non-pharmaceutical interventions. Here, the authors demonstrate a striking decline in reports of influenza and other non-influenza respiratory pathogens over winter months in which the interventions have been in place.

  • Q. Sue Huang
  • Richard J. Webby

article essay about covid 19

A potent SARS-CoV-2 neutralising nanobody shows therapeutic efficacy in the Syrian golden hamster model of COVID-19

Neutralizing nanobodies (Nb) are of considerable interest as therapeutic agents for COVID-19 treatment. Here, the authors functionally and structurally characterize Nbs that bind with high affinity to the receptor binding domain of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and show that an engineered homotrimeric Nb prevents disease progression in a Syrian hamster model of COVID-19 when administered intranasally.

  • Jiandong Huo
  • Halina Mikolajek
  • Raymond J. Owens

article essay about covid 19

Reprogrammed CRISPR-Cas13b suppresses SARS-CoV-2 replication and circumvents its mutational escape through mismatch tolerance

Cas13b can be harnessed to target and degrade RNA transcripts inside a cellular environment. Here the authors reprogram Cas13b to target SARSCoV-2 transcripts in infected mammalian cells and reveal its resilience to variants thanks to single mismatch tolerance.

  • Mohamed Fareh
  • Joseph A. Trapani

article essay about covid 19

SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell memory is sustained in COVID-19 convalescent patients for 10 months with successful development of stem cell-like memory T cells

T cells are instrumental to protective immune responses against SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Here the authors show that, in convalescent COVID-19 patients, memory T cell responses are detectable up to 317 days post-symptom onset, in which the presence of stem cell-like memory T cells further hints long-lasting immunity.

  • Jae Hyung Jung
  • Min-Seok Rha
  • Eui-Cheol Shin

article essay about covid 19

Seven-month kinetics of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and role of pre-existing antibodies to human coronaviruses

Long-term characterisation of SARS-CoV-2 antibody kinetics is needed to understand the protective role of the immune response. Here the authors describe antibody levels and neutralisation activity in healthcare workers over seven months and investigate the role of immunity to endemic human coronaviruses.

  • Natalia Ortega
  • Marta Ribes
  • Carlota Dobaño

article essay about covid 19

Mechanism of SARS-CoV-2 polymerase stalling by remdesivir

Remdesivir is a nucleoside analog that inhibits the SARS-CoV-2 RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) and is used as a drug to treat COVID19 patients. Here, the authors provide insights into the mechanism of remdesivir-induced RdRp stalling by determining the cryo-EM structures of SARS-CoV-2 RdRp with bound RNA molecules that contain remdesivir at defined positions and observe that addition of the fourth nucleotide following remdesivir incorporation into the RNA product is impaired by a barrier to further RNA translocation.

  • Goran Kokic
  • Hauke S. Hillen
  • Patrick Cramer

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A guide to writing the covid-19 essay for the common app.

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Students can use the Common App's new Covid-19 essay to expand on their experiences during the ... [+] pandemic.

Covid-19 has heavily impacted students applying to colleges in this application cycle. High schools have gone virtual, extracurricular activities have been canceled and family situations might have changed. Having recognized this, the Common App added a new optional 250-word essay that will give universities a chance to understand the atypical high school experience students have had. The prompt will be: 

“Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.”

Should I Write About The Coronavirus Pandemic?

For many high schoolers, the pandemic will have had a lasting impact on their education and everyday lives. Some students might have had a negative experience: a parent laid off or furloughed, limited access to online classes or a family member (or the student) having fallen ill from the virus. 

Other students might have had the opposite experience. Even though they might have undergone a few negative events or stressful times, they might have learned something new, started a new project or gained a new perspective that changed their future major or career choice. 

If you fit into either of these categories, writing the optional essay might be a good idea. 

Remember, the admission officers have also been dealing with the crisis and understand the situation students are going through. They are well aware that the AP exams were administered remotely, SAT/ACT test dates were canceled and numerous schools transitioned to a virtual learning model. There is likely no need to reiterate this in an essay unless there was a direct impact on an aspect of your application.

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As with every college essay you write, it is important to think about the tone and word choice. You want to remain sensitive to the plight of other students during this global crisis. While every student has likely been affected by the pandemic, the level of impact will vary greatly. For some, classes moved online, but life remained more or less the same. For these types of students, it might not be a strategic move to write about the coronavirus if you don’t have anything meaningful, unique or personal to say. If you only have a limited time to impress the admission officer, you want to ensure that each word is strategically thought out and showcases a new aspect of your personality. 

Using this space as a time to complain about how you weren’t able to go to the beach, see friends or eat out could be seen as you flaunting your privilege. Careful consideration of how you portray yourself will be key. 

Nearly every student has had an activity or event canceled. It likely won’t be a good use of your word count lamenting on the missed opportunities. Instead, it would be more illuminating to talk about how you remained flexible and pivoted to other learning opportunities.  

How To Write The Covid-19 Essay

The Covid-19 essay was introduced so universities could gain a better understanding of how their applicants have had their lives and education disrupted due to the pandemic. You’ll want to give the admission officers context to understand your experiences better. 

Here are some examples of how to write this optional essay. 

  • Outline any extenuating circumstances related to Covid-19. Some students might find themselves crammed in a small apartment or home with their entire family. This disruptive environment might have made it difficult for the student to concentrate on their classes. Some students might be required to care for younger siblings during the day. In many areas of the country, lack of access to high-speed internet or smart devices meant that students couldn’t participate in online learning. Now is the time to share those details. 
  • Include the impact. Ultimately, this essay is about you. Things likely happened to family members, friends or your community, but you need to show how it altered your life specifically. 
  • Provide specific details. Give the admission officers a peek into your everyday life. Including specific details can help make your story come alive. For example, don’t just say that it was hard dealing with the emotional trauma of seeing friends and family fall ill. Instead, be specific and talk about how your friend was diagnosed with Covid-19 and had to be hospitalized. Seeing the long-term effects caused you to take the pandemic much more seriously and moved you to take action. Perhaps you were inspired to start a nonprofit that makes masks or to help your neighbors through this difficult time. 

Covid-19 Essay for School Counselors 

It’s not just students who will get to submit an additional statement regarding the impact of the coronavirus: Counselors will also get a chance to submit a 500-word essay. Their prompt will be: 

Your school may have made adjustments due to community disruptions such as COVID–19 or natural disasters. If you have not already addressed those changes in your uploaded school profile or elsewhere, you can elaborate here. Colleges are especially interested in understanding changes to:

  • Grading scales and policies
  • Graduation requirements
  • Instructional methods
  • Schedules and course offerings
  • Testing requirements
  • Your academic calendar
  • Other extenuating circumstances

The counselor’s response will populate to all the applications of students from the high school. They will cover any school or district policies that have impacted students. No specific student details will be included. 

Students can ask to see a copy of this statement so they know what information has already been shared with colleges. For example, if the school states that classes went virtual starting in March, you don’t need to repeat that in your Covid-19 essay. 

Should I Write About The Covid-19 In My Personal Statement?

The world before Covid-19 might seem like a distant memory, but you did spend more than 15 years engaging in a multitude of meaningful activities and developing your passions. It’s important to define yourself from more than just the coronavirus crisis. You likely will want to spend the personal statement distinguishing yourself from other applicants. With the Covid-19 optional essay and the additional information section, you should have plenty of space to talk about how you’ve changed—for better or for worse—due to the pandemic. Use the personal statement to talk about who you were before quarantining.

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A portrait of Shaun Barcavage, who holds his forehead as though in pain.

Thousands Believe Covid Vaccines Harmed Them. Is Anyone Listening?

All vaccines have at least occasional side effects. But people who say they were injured by Covid vaccines believe their cases have been ignored.

Shaun Barcavage, 54, a nurse practitioner in New York City, said that ever since his first Covid shot, standing up has sent his heart racing. Credit... Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

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Apoorva Mandavilli

By Apoorva Mandavilli

Apoorva Mandavilli spent more than a year talking to dozens of experts in vaccine science, policymakers and people who said they had experienced serious side effects after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine.

  • Published May 3, 2024 Updated May 4, 2024

Within minutes of getting the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, Michelle Zimmerman felt pain racing from her left arm up to her ear and down to her fingertips. Within days, she was unbearably sensitive to light and struggled to remember simple facts.

She was 37, with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and until then could ride her bicycle 20 miles, teach a dance class and give a lecture on artificial intelligence, all in the same day. Now, more than three years later, she lives with her parents. Eventually diagnosed with brain damage, she cannot work, drive or even stand for long periods of time.

“When I let myself think about the devastation of what this has done to my life, and how much I’ve lost, sometimes it feels even too hard to comprehend,” said Dr. Zimmerman, who believes her injury is due to a contaminated vaccine batch .

The Covid vaccines, a triumph of science and public health, are estimated to have prevented millions of hospitalizations and deaths . Yet even the best vaccines produce rare but serious side effects . And the Covid vaccines have been given to more than 270 million people in the United States, in nearly 677 million doses .

Dr. Zimmerman’s account is among the more harrowing, but thousands of Americans believe they suffered serious side effects following Covid vaccination. As of April, just over 13,000 vaccine-injury compensation claims have been filed with the federal government — but to little avail. Only 19 percent have been reviewed. Only 47 of those were deemed eligible for compensation, and only 12 have been paid out, at an average of about $3,600 .

Some scientists fear that patients with real injuries are being denied help and believe that more needs to be done to clarify the possible risks.

“At least long Covid has been somewhat recognized,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist and vaccine expert at Yale University. But people who say they have post-vaccination injuries are “just completely ignored and dismissed and gaslighted,” she added.

Michelle Zimmerman sits on the floor of a ballroom where she used to dance, with a pair of dancing shoes next to her. She wears a dark skirt and a red velvet shirt.

In interviews and email exchanges conducted over several months, federal health officials insisted that serious side effects were extremely rare and that their surveillance efforts were more than sufficient to detect patterns of adverse events.

“Hundreds of millions of people in the United States have safely received Covid vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history,” Jeff Nesbit, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in an emailed statement.

But in a recent interview, Dr. Janet Woodcock, a longtime leader of the Food and Drug Administration, who retired in February, said she believed that some recipients had experienced uncommon but “serious” and “life-changing” reactions beyond those described by federal agencies.

“I feel bad for those people,” said Dr. Woodcock, who became the F.D.A.’s acting commissioner in January 2021 as the vaccines were rolling out. “I believe their suffering should be acknowledged, that they have real problems, and they should be taken seriously.”

“I’m disappointed in myself,” she added. “I did a lot of things I feel very good about, but this is one of the few things I feel I just didn’t bring it home.”

Federal officials and independent scientists face a number of challenges in identifying potential vaccine side effects.

The nation’s fragmented health care system complicates detection of very rare side effects, a process that depends on an analysis of huge amounts of data. That’s a difficult task when a patient may be tested for Covid at Walgreens, get vaccinated at CVS, go to a local clinic for minor ailments and seek care at a hospital for serious conditions. Each place may rely on different health record systems.

There is no central repository of vaccine recipients, nor of medical records, and no easy to way to pool these data. Reports to the largest federal database of so-called adverse events can be made by anyone, about anything. It’s not even clear what officials should be looking for.

“I mean, you’re not going to find ‘brain fog’ in the medical record or claims data, and so then you’re not going to find” a signal that it may be linked to vaccination, Dr. Woodcock said. If such a side effect is not acknowledged by federal officials, “it’s because it doesn’t have a good research definition,” she added. “It isn’t, like, malevolence on their part.”

The government’s understaffed compensation fund has paid so little because it officially recognizes few side effects for Covid vaccines. And vaccine supporters, including federal officials, worry that even a whisper of possible side effects feeds into misinformation spread by a vitriolic anti-vaccine movement.

‘I’m Not Real’

Patients who believe they experienced serious side effects say they have received little support or acknowledgment.

Shaun Barcavage, 54, a nurse practitioner in New York City who has worked on clinical trials for H.I.V. and Covid, said that ever since his first Covid shot, merely standing up sent his heart racing — a symptom suggestive of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome , a neurological disorder that some studies have linked to both Covid and, much less often, vaccination .

He also experienced stinging pain in his eyes, mouth and genitals, which has abated, and tinnitus, which has not.

“I can’t get the government to help me,” Mr. Barcavage said of his fruitless pleas to federal agencies and elected representatives. “I am told I’m not real. I’m told I’m rare. I’m told I’m coincidence.”

Renee France, 49, a physical therapist in Seattle, developed Bell’s palsy — a form of facial paralysis, usually temporary — and a dramatic rash that neatly bisected her face. Bell’s palsy is a known side effect of other vaccines, and it has been linked to Covid vaccination in some studies.

But Dr. France said doctors were dismissive of any connection to the Covid vaccines. The rash, a bout of shingles, debilitated her for three weeks, so Dr. France reported it to federal databases twice.

“I thought for sure someone would reach out, but no one ever did,” she said.

Similar sentiments were echoed in interviews, conducted over more than a year, with 30 people who said they had been harmed by Covid shots. They described a variety of symptoms following vaccination, some neurological, some autoimmune, some cardiovascular.

All said they had been turned away by physicians, told their symptoms were psychosomatic, or labeled anti-vaccine by family and friends — despite the fact that they supported vaccines.

Even leading experts in vaccine science have run up against disbelief and ambivalence.

Dr. Gregory Poland, 68, editor in chief of the journal Vaccine, said that a loud whooshing sound in his ears had accompanied every moment since his first shot, but that his entreaties to colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to explore the phenomenon, tinnitus, had led nowhere.

He received polite responses to his many emails, but “I just don’t get any sense of movement,” he said.

“If they have done studies, those studies should be published,” Dr. Poland added. In despair that he might “never hear silence again,” he has sought solace in meditation and his religious faith.

Dr. Buddy Creech, 50, who led several Covid vaccine trials at Vanderbilt University, said his tinnitus and racing heart lasted about a week after each shot. “It’s very similar to what I experienced during acute Covid, back in March of 2020,” Dr. Creech said.

Research may ultimately find that most reported side effects are unrelated to the vaccine, he acknowledged. Many can be caused by Covid itself.

“Regardless, when our patients experience a side effect that may or may not be related to the vaccine, we owe it to them to investigate that as completely as we can,” Dr. Creech said.

Federal health officials say they do not believe that the Covid vaccines caused the illnesses described by patients like Mr. Barcavage, Dr. Zimmerman and Dr. France. The vaccines may cause transient reactions, such as swelling, fatigue and fever, according to the C.D.C., but the agency has documented only four serious but rare side effects .

Two are associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is no longer available in the United States: Guillain-Barré syndrome , a known side effect of other vaccines , including the flu shot; and a blood-clotting disorder.

The C.D.C. also links mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to heart inflammation, or myocarditis, especially in boys and young men. And the agency warns of anaphylaxis, or severe allergic reaction, which can occur after any vaccination.

Listening for Signals

Agency scientists are monitoring large databases containing medical information on millions of Americans for patterns that might suggest a hitherto unknown side effect of vaccination, said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of the C.D.C.’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“We toe the line by reporting the signals that we think are real signals and reporting them as soon as we identify them as signals,” he said. The agency’s systems for monitoring vaccine safety are “pretty close” to ideal, he said.

article essay about covid 19

Those national surveillance efforts include the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). It is the largest database, but also the least reliable: Reports of side effects can be submitted by anyone and are not vetted, so they may be subject to bias or manipulation.

The system contains roughly one million reports regarding Covid vaccination, the vast majority for mild events, according to the C.D.C.

Federal researchers also comb through databases that combine electronic health records and insurance claims on tens of millions of Americans. The scientists monitor the data for 23 conditions that may occur following Covid vaccination. Officials remain alert to others that may pop up, Dr. Daskalakis said.

But there are gaps, some experts noted. The Covid shots administered at mass vaccination sites were not recorded in insurance claims databases, for example, and medical records in the United States are not centralized.

“It’s harder to see signals when you have so many people, and things are happening in different parts of the country, and they’re not all collected in the same system,” said Rebecca Chandler, a vaccine safety expert at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

An expert panel convened by the National Academies concluded in April that for the vast majority of side effects, there was not enough data to accept or reject a link.

Asked at a recent congressional hearing whether the nation’s vaccine-safety surveillance was sufficient, Dr. Peter Marks, director of the F.D.A.’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said, “I do believe we could do better.”

In some countries with centralized health care systems, officials have actively sought out reports of serious side effects of Covid vaccines and reached conclusions that U.S. health authorities have not.

In Hong Kong, the government analyzed centralized medical records of patients after vaccination and paid people to come forward with problems. The strategy identified “a lot of mild cases that other countries would not otherwise pick up,” said Ian Wong, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong who led the nation’s vaccine safety efforts.

That included the finding that in rare instances — about seven per million doses — the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine triggered a bout of shingles serious enough to require hospitalization.

The European Medicines Agency has linked the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to facial paralysis, tingling sensations and numbness. The E.M.A. also counts tinnitus as a side effect of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, although the American health agencies do not. There are more than 17,000 reports of tinnitus following Covid vaccination in VAERS.

Are the two linked? It’s not clear. As many as one in four adults has some form of tinnitus. Stress, anxiety, grief and aging can lead to the condition, as can infections like Covid itself and the flu.

There is no test or scan for tinnitus, and scientists cannot easily study it because the inner ear is tiny, delicate and encased in bone, said Dr. Konstantina Stankovic, an otolaryngologist at Stanford University.

Still, an analysis of health records from nearly 2.6 million people in the United States found that about 0.04 percent , or about 1,000, were diagnosed with tinnitus within three weeks of their first mRNA shot. In March, researchers in Australia published a study linking tinnitus and vertigo to the vaccines .

The F.D.A. is monitoring reports of tinnitus, but “at this time, the available evidence does not suggest a causal association with the Covid-19 vaccines,” the agency said in a statement.

Despite surveillance efforts, U.S. officials were not the first to identify a significant Covid vaccine side effect: myocarditis in young people receiving mRNA vaccines. It was Israeli authorities who first raised the alarm in April 2021. Officials in the United States said at the time that they had not seen a link.

On May 22, 2021, news broke that the C.D.C. was investigating a “relatively few” cases of myocarditis. By June 23, the number of myocarditis reports in VAERS had risen to more than 1,200 — a hint that it is important to tell doctors and patients what to look for.

Later analyses showed that the risk for myocarditis and pericarditis, a related condition, is highest after a second dose of an mRNA Covid vaccine in adolescent males aged 12 to 17 years.

In many people, vaccine-related myocarditis is transient. But some patients continue to experience pain, breathlessness and depression, and some show persistent changes on heart scans . The C.D.C. has said there were no confirmed deaths related to myocarditis, but in fact there have been several accounts of deaths reported post-vaccination .

Pervasive Misinformation

The rise of the anti-vaccine movement has made it difficult for scientists, in and out of government, to candidly address potential side effects, some experts said. Much of the narrative on the purported dangers of Covid vaccines is patently false, or at least exaggerated, cooked up by savvy anti-vaccine campaigns.

Questions about Covid vaccine safety are core to Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign. Citing debunked theories about altered DNA, Florida’s surgeon general has called for a halt to Covid vaccination in the state.

“The sheer nature of misinformation, the scale of misinformation, is staggering, and anything will be twisted to make it seem like it’s not just a devastating side effect but proof of a massive cover-up,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at Johns Hopkins University.

Among the hundreds of millions of Americans who were immunized for Covid, some number would have had heart attacks or strokes anyway. Some women would have miscarried. How to distinguish those caused by the vaccine from those that are coincidences? The only way to resolve the question is intense research .

But the National Institutes of Health is conducting virtually no studies on Covid vaccine safety, several experts noted. William Murphy, a cancer researcher who worked at the N.I.H. for 12 years, has been prodding federal health officials to initiate these studies since 2021.

The officials each responded with “that very tired mantra: ‘But the virus is worse,’” Dr. Murphy recalled. “Yes, the virus is worse, but that doesn’t obviate doing research to make sure that there may be other options.”

A deeper understanding of possible side effects, and who is at risk for them, could have implications for the design of future vaccines, or may indicate that for some young and healthy people, the benefit of Covid shots may no longer outweigh the risks — as some European countries have determined.

Thorough research might also speed assistance to thousands of Americans who say they were injured.

The federal government has long run the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program , designed to compensate people who suffer injuries after vaccination. Established more than three decades ago, the program sets no limit on the amounts awarded to people found to have been harmed.

But Covid vaccines are not covered by that fund because Congress has not made them subject to the excise tax that pays for it. Some lawmakers have introduced bills to make the change.

Instead, claims regarding Covid vaccines go to the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program . Intended for public health emergencies, this program has narrow criteria to pay out and sets a limit of $50,000, with stringent standards of proof.

It requires applicants to prove within a year of the injury that it was “the direct result” of getting the Covid vaccine, based on “compelling, reliable, valid, medical, and scientific evidence.”

The program had only four staff members at the beginning of the pandemic, and now has 35 people evaluating claims. Still, it has reviewed only a fraction of the 13,000 claims filed, and has paid out only a dozen.

Dr. Ilka Warshawsky, a 58-year-old pathologist, said she lost all hearing in her right ear after a Covid booster shot. But hearing loss is not a recognized side effect of Covid vaccination.

The compensation program for Covid vaccines sets a high bar for proof, she said, yet offers little information on how to meet it: “These adverse events can be debilitating and life-altering, and so it’s very upsetting that they’re not acknowledged or addressed.”

Dr. Zimmerman, the neuroscientist, submitted her application in October 2021 and provided dozens of supporting medical documents. She received a claim number only in January 2023.

In adjudicating her claim for workers’ compensation, Washington State officials accepted that Covid vaccination caused her injury, but she has yet to get a decision from the federal program.

One of her therapists recently told her she might never be able to live independently again.

“That felt like a devastating blow,” Dr. Zimmerman said. “But I’m trying not to lose hope there will someday be a treatment and a way to cover it.”

Apoorva Mandavilli is a reporter focused on science and global health. She was a part of the team that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of the pandemic. More about Apoorva Mandavilli


Protein C and S activities in COVID-19: A systematic review and meta-analysis

  • Published: 09 May 2024

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  • Mohammad Ghorbani   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-8829-4258 5 &
  • Hassan Mansouritorghabeh   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4904-0156 6  

COVID-19 has been associated with alterations in coagulation. Recent reports have shown that protein C and S activities are altered in COVID-19. This may affect the complications and outcome of the disease. However, their exact role in COVID-19 remains uncertain. The aim of the current study was therefore to analyze all papers in the literature on protein C and S activities in COVID-19. We searched three medical electronic databases. Of the 2442 papers, 28 studies were selected for the present meta-analysis. For the meta-analysis, means ± standard deviations with 95% confidence intervals (CI) for protein C and S activities were extracted. Pooled p values were calculated using STATA software. Protein C and S activities were significantly lower in COVID-19 patients than in healthy controls (pooled p values: 0.04 and 0.02, respectively). Similarly, protein C activities were considerably lower in nonsurviving patients (pooled p value = 0.00). There was no association between proteins C or S and thrombosis risk or ICU admission in COVID-19 patients ( p value > 0.05). COVID-19 patients may exhibit lower activities of the C and S proteins, which might affect disease outcome; however, additional attention should be given when considering therapeutic strategies for these patients.

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The authors would like to thank Gonabad University of Medical Sciences for funding this study.

This work was supported by Gonabad University of Medical Sciences, Gonabad, Iran, under Grant number 1271.

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Department of Hematology and Blood Banking, Faculty of Medicine, Gonabad University of Medical Sciences, Gonabad, Iran

Zahra Khoshnegah

Blood Transfusion Research Center, High Institute for Research and Education in Transfusion Medicine, Tehran, Iran

Payam Siyadat

Department of Hematology and Blood Banking, Faculty of Allied Medicine, Iran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran

Mehrdad Rostami

Cancer Molecular Pathology Research Center, Mashhad University of Medical Sciences, Mashhad, Iran

Maryam Sheikhi

PhD Student of Hematology and Transfusion Science, Pathology Department, Gonabad University of Medical Sciences, Gonabad, Iran

Mohammad Ghorbani

Central Diagnostic Laboratories, Ghaem Hospital, Mashhad University of Medical Sciences, Mashhad, Iran

Hassan Mansouritorghabeh

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• Thrombosis is one of the main causes of organ failure in COVID-19.

• The natural anticoagulants protein C and S have an influence on thrombosis.

• The current meta-analysis showed reduced protein C and S are reduced in COVID-19.

• In non-surviving COVID-19 patients, the activity of protein C is lower than in cured individuals.

• The fluctuation of the other natural anticoagulants in COVID-19 could play a role in thrombosis in patients with COVID-19.

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Khoshnegah, Z., Siyadat, P., Rostami, M. et al. Protein C and S activities in COVID-19: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Thromb Thrombolysis (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11239-024-02971-6

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When pto stands for 'pretend time off': doctors struggle to take real breaks.

Mara Gordon

article essay about covid 19

A survey shows that doctors have trouble taking full vacations from their high-stress jobs. Even when they do, they often still do work on their time off. Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images hide caption

A survey shows that doctors have trouble taking full vacations from their high-stress jobs. Even when they do, they often still do work on their time off.

A few weeks ago, I took a vacation with my family. We went hiking in the national parks of southern Utah, and I was blissfully disconnected from work.

I'm a family physician, so taking a break from my job meant not seeing patients. It also meant not responding to patients' messages or checking my work email. For a full week, I was free.

Taking a real break — with no sneaky computer time to bang out a few prescription refill requests — left me feeling reenergized and ready to take care of my patients when I returned.

But apparently, being a doctor who doesn't work on vacation puts me squarely in the minority of U.S. physicians.

Research published in JAMA Network Open this year set out to quantify exactly how doctors use their vacation time — and what the implications might be for a health care workforce plagued by burnout, dissatisfaction and doctors who are thinking about leaving medicine.

"There is a strong business case for supporting taking real vacation," says Dr. Christine Sinsky , the lead author of the paper. "Burnout is incredibly expensive for organizations."

Health workers know what good care is. Pandemic burnout is getting in the way

Shots - Health News

Health workers know what good care is. pandemic burnout is getting in the way.

Researchers surveyed 3,024 doctors, part of an American Medical Association cohort designed to represent the American physician workforce. They found that 59.6% of American physicians took 15 days of vacation or less per year. That's a little more than the average American: Most workers who have been at a job for a year or more get between 10 and 14 days of paid vacation time , according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, most doctors don't take real vacation. Over 70% of doctors surveyed said they worked on a typical vacation day.

"I have heard physicians refer to PTO as 'pretend time off,'" Sinsky says, referring to the acronym for "paid time off."

Sinsky and co-authors found that physicians who took more than three weeks of vacation a year had lower rates of burnout than those who took less, since vacation time is linked to well-being and job satisfaction .

And all those doctors toiling away on vacation, sitting poolside with their laptops? Sinsky argues it has serious consequences for health care.

Physician burnout is linked to high job turnover and excess health care costs , among other problems.

Still, it can be hard to change the culture of workaholism in medicine. Even the study authors confessed that they, too, worked on vacation.

"I remember when one of our first well-being papers was published," says Dr. Colin West , a co-author of the new study and a health care workforce researcher at the Mayo Clinic. "I responded to the revisions up at the family cabin in northern Minnesota on vacation."

Sinsky agreed. "I do not take all my vacation, which I recognize as a delicious irony of the whole thing," she says.

She's the American Medical Association's vice president of professional satisfaction. If she can't take a real vacation, is there any hope for the rest of us?

I interviewed a half dozen fellow physicians and chatted off the record with many friends and colleagues to get a sense of why it feels so hard to give ourselves a break. Here, I offer a few theories about why doctors are so terrible at taking time off.

We don't want to make more work for our colleagues

The authors of the study in JAMA Network Open didn't explore exactly what type of work doctors did on vacation, but the physicians I spoke to had some ideas.

"If I am not doing anything, I will triage my email a little bit," says Jocelyn Fitzgerald , a urogynecologist at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved in the study. "I also find that certain high-priority virtual meetings sometimes find their way into my vacations."

Even if doctors aren't scheduled to see patients, there's almost always plenty of work to be done: dealing with emergencies, medication refills, paperwork. For many of us, the electronic medical record (EMR) is an unrelenting taskmaster , delivering a near-constant flow of bureaucratic to-dos.

When I go on vacation, my fellow primary care doctors handle that work for me, and I do the same for them.

But it can sometimes feel like a lot to ask, especially when colleagues are doing that work on top of their normal workload.

"You end up putting people in kind of a sticky situation, asking for favors, and they [feel they] need to pay it back," says Jay-Sheree Allen , a family physician and fellow in preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

She says her practice has a "doctor of the day" who covers all urgent calls and messages, which helps reduce some of the guilt she feels about taking time off.

Still, non-urgent tasks are left for her to complete when she gets back. She says she usually logs in to the EMR when she's on vacation so the tasks don't pile up upon her return. If she doesn't, Allen estimates there will be about eight hours of paperwork awaiting her after a week or so of vacation.

"My strategy, I absolutely do not recommend," Allen says. But "I would prefer that than coming back to the total storm."

We have too little flexibility about when we take vacation

Lawren Wooten , a resident physician in pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco, says she takes 100% of her vacation time. But there are a lot of stipulations about exactly how she uses it.

She has to take it in two-week blocks — "that's a long time at once," she says — and it's hard to change the schedule once her chief residents assign her dates.

"Sometimes I wish I had vacation in the middle of two really emotionally challenging rotations like an ICU rotation and an oncology rotation," she says, referring to the intensive care unit. "We don't really get to control our schedules at this point in our careers."

Once Wooten finishes residency and becomes an attending physician, it's likely she'll have more autonomy over her vacation time — but not necessarily all that much more.

"We generally have to know when our vacations are far in advance because patients schedule with us far in advance," says Fitzgerald, the gynecologist.

Taking vacation means giving up potential pay

Many physicians are paid based on the number of patients they see or procedures they complete. If they take time off work, they make less money.

"Vacation is money off your table," says West, the physician well-being researcher. "People have a hard time stepping off of the treadmill."

A 2022 research brief from the American Medical Association estimated that over 55% of U.S. physicians were paid at least in part based on "productivity," as opposed to earning a flat amount regardless of patient volume. That means the more patients doctors cram into their schedules, the more money they make. Going on vacation could decrease their take-home pay.

But West says it's important to weigh the financial benefits of skipping vacation against the risk of burnout from working too much.

Physician burnout is linked not only to excess health care costs but also to higher rates of medical errors. In one large survey of American surgeons , for example, surgeons experiencing burnout were more likely to report being involved in a major medical error. (It's unclear to what extent the burnout caused the errors or the errors caused the burnout, however.)

Doctors think they're the only one who can do their jobs

When I go on vacation, my colleagues see my patients for me. I work in a small office, so I know the other doctors well and I trust that my patients are in good hands when I'm away.

Doctors have their own diagnosis: 'Moral distress' from an inhumane health system

Doctors have their own diagnosis: 'Moral distress' from an inhumane health system

But ceding that control to colleagues might be difficult for some doctors, especially when it comes to challenging patients or big research projects.

"I think we need to learn to be better at trusting our colleagues," says Adi Shah , an infectious disease doctor at the Mayo Clinic. "You don't have to micromanage every slide on the PowerPoint — it's OK."

West, the well-being researcher, says health care is moving toward a team-based model and away from a culture where an individual doctor is responsible for everything. Still, he adds, it can be hard for some doctors to accept help.

"You can be a neurosurgeon, you're supposed to go on vacation tomorrow and you operate on a patient. And there are complications or risk of complications, and you're the one who has the relationship with that family," West says. "It is really, really hard for us to say ... 'You're in great hands with the rest of my team.'"

What doctors need, says West, is "a little bit less of the God complex."

We don't have any interests other than medicine

Shah, the infectious disease doctor, frequently posts tongue-in-cheek memes on X (formerly known as Twitter) about the culture of medicine. Unplugging during vacation is one of his favorite topics, despite his struggles to follow his own advice.

His recommendation to doctors is to get a hobby, so we can find something better to do than work all the time.

"Stop taking yourself too seriously," he says. Shah argues that medical training is so busy that many physicians neglect to develop any interests other than medicine. When fully trained doctors are finally finished with their education, he says, they're at a loss for what to do with their newfound freedom.

Since completing his training a few years ago, Shah has committed himself to new hobbies, such as salsa dancing. He has plans to go to a kite festival next year.

Shah has also prioritized making the long trip from Minnesota to see his family in India at least twice a year — a journey that requires significant time off work. He has a trip there planned this month.

"This is the first time in 11 years I'm making it to India in summer so that I can have a mango in May," the peak season for the fruit, Shah says.

Wooten, the pediatrician, agrees. She works hard to develop a full life outside her career.

"Throughout our secondary and medical education, I believe we've really been indoctrinated into putting institutions above ourselves," Wooten adds. "It takes work to overcome that."

Mara Gordon is a family physician in Camden, N.J., and a contributor to NPR. She's on X as @MaraGordonMD .

  • American Medical Association


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