COVID-19 Update: Airborne Virus Controversy, Stem Cells

Victoria Giardina

July 06, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Here are the coronavirus stories Medscape's editors around the globe think you need to know about today:

Airborne Virus Controversy

Hundreds of scientists have written a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) outlining evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can spread through smaller, airborne droplets and they are asking the agency to revise its recommendations, the New York Times reported this weekend. According to the report, the scientists plan to publish the letter in a scientific journal this week. 

"Especially in the last couple of months, we have been stating several times that we consider airborne transmission as possible but certainly not supported by solid or even clear evidence," Benedetta Allegranzi, MD, the WHO's technical lead of infection prevention and control, told the Times.

Stem Cells

Researchers are testing mesenchymal stem cells to tackle COVID-19-associated acute respiratory distress syndrome. ClinicalTrials.gov currently lists 53 such investigations of stem cells. Stem cell interventions are not without risks, and the first peer-reviewed reports of trial outcomes won't appear for a few more weeks. 

"Cellular therapies have the added risk of being a living product potentially with hundreds of millions or billions of cells, which once infused cannot be controlled," said Paul Knoepfler, PhD, professor at the UC Davis Health/School of Medicine department of cell biology and human anatomy. "The biggest risk is likely to be making the cytokine storm worse, or somehow overdoing suppressing immunity and making the patient less able to fight the infection." 

No COVID-19 With Appropriate PPE

Providing healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) protects them from infection, a study from China suggests. 

Researchers reviewed diagnostic and antibody testing data from hundreds of doctors and nurses who spent 6 to 8 weeks in Wuhan helping care for COVID-19 patients. The healthcare workers were all involved in aerosol-generating procedures, but also had PPE including protective suits, masks, gloves, goggles, face shields, and gowns, and followed infection control protocols. None of them showed COVID-19 symptoms, and none tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection or antibodies. 

Loss of Smell and Taste

A new study suggests that individuals who contracted a mild form of COVID-19 and lost their ability to smell or taste will gradually gain those senses back. In a survey of more than 100 adults, nearly 90% either experienced complete resolution or some improvement of these symptoms within 1 month of onset, according to study results published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

"While the complete improvement of [about] 50% of patients is reassuring that many patients will experience full recovery, the 10% that did not experience at least an improvement suggests that we should remain vigilant as a medical community on this important symptom," Nicholas Rowan, MD, an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told Reuters.

Healthcare Workers Account for 1 in 10 Cases

At least 10% of all COVID-19 infections in England during a 6-week period from the end of April to the first week in June were among frontline healthcare and social care workers, according to a report from the Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics. 

Inadequate PPE, a lack of testing capacity, not separating patients with the disease from those without it, and staff not always observing social distancing may have partly been responsible for the spread of the disease, the experts suggested.

Sexual Health During Pandemic

The stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic may bring challenges and changes to sexual health and behavior, including an increase in sexual violence and "uncontrolled pornography consumption as a result of negative moods," experts said during a webinar hosted by The International Society for Sexual Medicine (ISSM). The ISSM and International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH) have produced statements outlining guidance around sexual activity and COVID-19, advising on avoiding sexual behaviors including kissing.

"There is conflicting evidence regarding the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in seminal or vaginal fluid," an Italian urologist said at the webinar. “It is not known for how long the virus remains present in the semen nor whether the semen carries transmission risk. The data is still incomplete and studies that have been done have been on small sample sizes.”

In Memoriam

As frontline healthcare workers care for patients with COVID-19, they commit themselves to difficult, draining work and also put themselves at risk for infection. More than 1500 throughout the world have died. 

Medscape has published a memorial list to commemorate them. We will continue updating this list as, sadly, needed. Please help us ensure this list is complete by submitting names with an age, profession or specialty, and location through this form

If you would like to share any other experiences, stories, or concerns related to the pandemic, please join the conversation here.

Victoria Giardina is Medscape's editorial intern. She has previously written for The Dr. Oz Show and is currently a national lifestyle writer for Her Campus. She can be reached at vgiardina@webmd.net or on Twitter @VickyRGiardina.

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