Science summary: A look at novel coronavirus research around the globe

Thousands of scientists around the world are working on problems raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is a summary of some recent research from peer-reviewed academic journals and scientific agencies:

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Researchers from King's College London are warning that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to put unprecedented strains on health-care workers akin to tensions that can occur in the military.

Writing in the British journal BMJ, researchers warn that medical workers will face impossible decisions under extreme pressures.

Those decisions may include how to allocate scant resources to equally needy patients, balancing workers' own needs with those of patients, and aligning duties to patients with those to family and friends.

Some may experience what the authors call "moral injury" — distress that results from actions, or lack of actions, which violate someone’s moral code.

The authors say health-care staff should understand what they are likely to face and the support they will need as they go through the pandemic.

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Four groups of Canadian researchers are beginning randomized controlled trials to test possible therapies for people sick with  COVID-19.

The trials are described in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and are being conducted with researchers around the world.

At least two of the tests are looking at hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that some claim is also effective against the novel coronavirus — although many are dubious. 

The authors write that unapproved, experimental medications are already being used outside of clinical trials, but unproven treatments can be harmful or ineffective.

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Chinese researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the possible transmission of COVID-19 from expectant mothers to their babies.

They found three out of 33 infants born to mothers in Wuhan with the illness tested positive for symptoms two days after birth. Scientists concluded they couldn't rule out mother-to-fetus transmission.

Others noted the low rate of infection and suggested the virus was contracted after birth. Previous studies have ruled out transmission of COVID-19 in the womb.

The authors conclude that newborns should be safe from the novel coronavirus if precautions are taken during delivery. All the babies in the Chinese study recovered.

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Researchers at York University in Toronto say Canada could have 15,000 cases by the end of March unless public health precautions are stepped up.

The study, to be published in the journal Infectious Disease Modelling, says further measures could cut that total by 4,000.

The researchers looked at intervention measures in different countries and found them to have been effective in reducing the growth rate of the virus and delaying the doubling of cases, which can happen in as little as three days.

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Bats aren't the only animals that can host coronaviruses.

A paper published in Nature says that pangolins — a scaly anteater found in Asia — have also been found to host viruses closely related to the one behind the current pandemic.

Illegally trafficked pangolins are used as food and in traditional Chinese medicine.

The authors say the evidence doesn't prove that pangolins played a role in the transmission of the novel coronavirus to humans. But they say the mammals need to be handled carefully.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 27, 2020

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press