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The 100-year life 
Health, education and government

18 may 2022

Herpes reactivation 
Last summer a number of studies began to draw the dots between long Covid and dormant forms of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which is in the herpes virus family and estimated to infect 95 per cent of humans over the course of their lives. For most people, it lies dormant in the body. Symptoms, when it’s reactivated, are generally mild, including fatigue, fever and sore throat, but they can be serious in people who are immunocompromised, such as through HIV, a cold, stress, transplant surgery – or Covid. It’s that reactivation that some long Covid sufferers may be reacting to with symptoms like glandular fever and chronic fatigue, and researchers at the University of Würzburg have now discovered how the virus reactivates. In cell culture experiments they found that by “switching off” a viral microRNA that helps the HHV-6A herpes virus evade the immune system they can “kill” it. It’s a significant find for long Covid researchers, as well as those looking to increase the success of organ transplants. To note: an estimated 1.3 million people are living with symptoms of long Covid in the UK four weeks after infection.

17 may 2022

North Korean Covid
North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, ordered his army to improve the distribution of Covid medicine in Pyongyang. His poor and secretive country admitted to its first ever infection last week. Around 1.2 million people are now said to have developed a “fever”, and 50 deaths have been reported. North Koreans are especially vulnerable to the virus because of an acute shortage of vaccinations and a poor healthcare system. Also, they’ve barely been exposed to Covid and so have had no chance of developing natural immunity. South Korea’s offers of vaccines and aid have gone unanswered.

16 may 2022

Newborn data
Full genomic sequencing for newborns is still, like its patients, in the early stages of development. Some tests are already common in ante-natal care (such as for sickle-cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis). But the time is coming closer when babies’ full genomes could be screened at birth for thousands of potential genetic diseases, the argument being the sooner doctors know, the sooner they can step in. It’s estimated 75 per cent of rare diseases are genetic, but curing them isn’t simple scientifically or ethically. Take Tay-Sachs, which usually kills children by age five. Would parents want to know? The Economist reports that questions like this have led Genomics England to approach plans to sequence 200,000 babies “cautiously”. The potential for a vast data set that could be invaluable to the public and private sectors is raising eyebrows too. Question: how much data is too much data?

13 may 2022

NK Covid
North Korea has finally caught up with the rest of the world – on Covid. The country’s news agency is reporting an “explosive” spread of the virus and Kim Jong-un has ordered a national lockdown to combat the “immediate public health crisis”. 350,000 people are reported to have shown signs of fever since cases escalated in April. Six people have died, including at least one person who caught Omicron. Evading the virus for this long has come at a price. None of North Korea’s 25 million population are vaccinated and restricted trade with China has exacerbated malnutrition. UN sanctions in response to nuclear testing haven’t helped, and the economy is tanking. It’s unlikely Kim will get through the crisis without outside help. Even announcing the outbreak could be seen as a (reluctant) appeal for aid. Korean outlets are reporting this as a chance to reset the US relationship, but American medical support seems unlikely given Biden’s failure to announce any new US funding at his own global Covid summit yesterday. South Korea may have got there first in any case. Yoon Suk-yeol, its new president, said this morning he was happy to send vaccinations north. 

12 MAY 2022

Next variant
Priorities change. Congress approved another $40 billion in US military aid for Ukraine this week, but the White House isn’t bringing significant new money to the table at its global Covid response summit, which starts today. Instead, it’s asking other countries to fill a funding hole for global vaccination left when Congress declined to approve a $5 billion request in March. The US backs a goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of all countries’ populations but in many poor countries that isn’t close to being achieved. In 18 countries including most of the Sahel the level is below 10 per cent and Gordon Brown, the former UK prime minister, says the complacent rich world is sleepwalking to the next Covid variant. 

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