A round-up of COVID stories you might have missed

Impeachment proceedings have dominated the news over the last week, but the world is still dealing with a pandemic. Here are some news stories you might have missed: Virus mutations in a live host, the toll of writing pandemic obituaries, the ‘shadow pandemic’ devastating Africa’s girls, why the pandemic could be much more widespread than we realize and some magical thinking on how to treat it.

Virus mutations tracked in live host – Back in the spring, a 45-year-old man with a severe autoimmune disease showed up at the hospital with COVID-19. He was treated with steroids and discharged five days later. He died 154 days later, having shed light on how coronavirus mutates because it did so multiple times in those 5 months. He never did stop shedding the virus. Researchers sequenced the virus’s genome from this patient every few weeks. Infectious disease doctor Jonathan Li from Harvard Medical School helped to treat the man and could not believe what he was seeing. “I was shocked,” he says. “When I saw the virus sequences, I knew that we were dealing with something completely different and potentially very important.” The sequences showed Li and his team that the virus was changing very quickly inside the man’s body. The virus wasn’t picking up just one or two mutations at a time. But rather, it acquired a whole cluster of more than 20 mutations. Scientists had never seen SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, mutate so quickly during the whole pandemic. In December, the findings from Li and his colleagues suddenly got a lot more attention when scientists in the U.K. and South Africa announced they had detected new variants. Those variants looked remarkably similar to the mutations found in Dr. Li’s patient. The leading theory on virus mutations is now that the virus can use immunocompromised patients as a testing ground for new variations. (NPR)

Being an obituary writer during a pandemic – Glenn Rifkin writes obituaries for a living. Writing them during a pandemic feels different, he says. “Unlike the usual obituaries I have written about notable people, luminaries in their field, famous or accomplished folks who are deemed worthy of a New York Times obit, these are about ordinary people, young and old, who mattered deeply to their family and friends and colleagues and whose common connection is that they were lost to a scourge rampaging around the nation and the world.” Too often, we get caught up in the anonymity of big numbers, he writes. “After nearly a year of trying to cope with the nightmare of this pandemic, the number of cases and deaths is so large that it is simultaneously shocking and numbing. We are told this is more than all those who died in World War II and all subsequent wars.” But every loss is a real person, with “names, faces and a seat at the dinner table.” Definitely worth the read. (Cognoscenti)

Futures destroyed: The ‘shadow pandemics’ devastating Africa’s girls – From rape and sexual exploitation to female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage and early pregnancy, COVID-19 has unleashed a myriad of “shadow pandemics” on girls across Africa, say child rights groups. Countries such as Kenya, Malawi and Ethiopia are reporting spikes in teen pregnancies and early marriages, raising fears many girls may not ever return to school – and jeopardising decades of work to reverse deep-rooted gender inequalities. Cases of FGM are surging, as COVID-19 rages. FGM, which involves partial or total removal of the female genitalia, threatens 4 million girls annually and the pandemic has made it worse. Vulnerable girls are stuck at home, anti-FGM groups can’t get out into communities and limited health care services are focused on the pandemic. Stricken by lack of resources, families are resorting to marrying off their daughters – and performing FGM to make them more “attractive” to potential husbands, who pay the bride’s family a dowry. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and added yet another layer of vulnerability to an already dire web of vulnerabilities of girls in the African continent,” said a report in August. “Millions of girls have been deprived of access to food, basic healthcare and protection and thousands exposed to abuse and exploitation.” (Reuters)

Why the pandemic could be 10 times worse than you think – A research team from Columbia University has built a mathematical model that paints a more complete picture of how the pandemic is spreading. It includes estimates of how many people will never be counted because they never get tested. The model’s conclusion? “On any given day, the actual number of active cases — people who are newly infected or still infectious — is likely 10 times that day’s official number of reported cases.” “There are a lot of people walking around with this virus who never know they have it,” says lead researcher Jeffrey Shaman. “Even the people who are ultimately swabbed and confirmed were contagious before they even had their symptoms.” Nationwide, Shaman estimates that about 120 million people have now been infected, just over a third of the U.S. population. (NPR)

Maduro’s magical thinking – Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, either can’t or won’t get vaccines for his country, so he went on national television to proclaim a miracle cure that has no side effects and is completely effective: Carvativir. “Venezuelan medical professionals now say that Maduro’s “miracle drops” — which he pledged would rapidly go into mass production — are actually an extract of the herb thyme, used in homeopathic therapies and ordinary cooking.” Venezuelan doctors are calling Maduro’s claims false and dangerous, providing false hope of protection. Maduro says they’re just jealous. (Washington Post)