The cascade of reports from around the world about multiplying Covid-19 cases and rising death tolls is so unrelenting, it’s hard to see any bright spots.
Here amid the gloom are seven positive developments this week on which to focus the mind. There are, however, caveats . . .
1. Hopes rise for effective treatment
Clinical trials in China have found that a drug used to treat new flu strains in Japan appears to be effective among Covid-19 patients in Wuhan and Shenzhen. It would be much quicker to "repurpose" tested and approved drugs than to produce new ones that must undergo much more extensive trials and await approval. At present, medical staff can only treat the virus symptoms while the body fights the illness.
The drug favilavir, developed by a subsidiary of Fujifilm, is currently available as an influenza treatment in Japan. Patients who were given the medicine in Shenzhen tested negative for the virus after a median of four days after becoming positive, compared with a median of 11 days for those who were not treated with the drug, according to the Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
However, someone at the Japanese health ministry was reported as suggesting the drug, also known as Avigan, was not as effective in people with more severe symptoms. “We’ve given Avigan to 70-80 people, but it doesn’t seem to work that well when the virus has already multiplied,” the source told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in Japan.
Other existing drugs in the forefront of the global race to find a successful treatment include the lung medication SNG001 being trialled by Synairgen in the UK; Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum anti-viral drug developed by Gilead to treat Ebola; Roche's rheumatoid arthritis treatment Actemra and AbbVie's HIV drug Kaletra/Aluvia.
2. Vaccines in the pipeline
There’s encouraging news coming from labs working flat out to develop a vaccine, for which there can never have been a bigger moral and financial incentive to be the first in this race.
Israeli researchers from the state-funded Migal Galilee Research Institute announced they might have a vaccine for the virus in eight-10 weeks. They had a headstart through working on a vaccine for the infectious bronchitis virus, which has been found to be genetically similar to Covid-19.
However, the optimism of Migal's chief executive David Zigdon that the vaccine could "achieve safety approval in 90 days", was countered by a warning from the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr Anthony Fauci.
Ahead of the clinical trial of a vaccine on healthy humans that started at Seattle's Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute this week, he stressed that the time frame for the production of a vaccine would still be a year-18 months. "Anyone who thinks they can move more quickly than that, I believe, would be cutting corners that would be detrimental," Fauci added.
3. Zero transmission
On Wednesday, for the first time since the virus took hold late last year in Hubei province, it was reported that China had recorded no locally transmitted cases. However, on the same day Beijing reported 21 new cases of infections from abroad, mostly people travelling from Spain and Britain.
Officials there now have to concentrate on screening inbound passengers and isolating suspected cases if they are to prevent a second wave of infections arriving from abroad.
4. Containment in Japan
With fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases by mid-week in Japan – excluding those aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship while it was quarantined in Yokohama – health experts are looking at how it has managed to be one of the least-affected countries in the developed world.
Although schools were closed and large crowd events cancelled, there has not been the same level of stringent measures imposed elsewhere. Tokyo rush hour trains are still packed and restaurants remain open.
The Japanese government, probably alerted early by the proximity of China, says it has been pinpointing clusters and containing the spread. It may have been helped by a culture where handshakes and hugs are less common and handwashing more frequent, compared with those of other G7 countries.
However, "the looming question is whether Japan has dodged a bullet or is about to be hit", according to a Bloomberg report. Some experts believe that a relatively low level of testing up to now means outbreaks are yet to be identified and that Japan will have to move from containment to the "delay-the-peak phase" very soon.
5. Preventing premature deaths
Drastic curtailment of economic activity enforced by China during the coronavirus outbreak has cut air pollution so much that tens of thousands of people may be saved from premature deaths, according to a CNN report.
It quoted Stanford University researcher Marshall Burke: "The reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country."
He calculated that the two months of cleaner air resulting from the coronavirus restrictions has saved the lives of between 1,400 and 4,000 children under five, and 51,700 to 73,000 adults over 70 in China.
However, Burke also acknowledged that broader disruption caused by Covid-19 could cause many additional deaths beyond those infected with the virus, through difficulties in accessing health services during the pandemic and the decline in economic wellbeing. He didn’t do the sums for that.
6. Reassurance for the worried well
More than 99 per cent of Italy’s coronavirus fatalities are people who have suffered from previous medical conditions, according to results of a study by the country’s national health, as reported by Bloomberg. In examining the medical records of 18 per cent of those who have died from the virus, researchers found that just three victims, or 0.8 per cent of the total, had no prior illness. Almost half of the victims suffered from at least three pre-existing medical conditions.
But of course those figures cannot allay the anxiety that perfectly healthy people have for those most at risk through poor health and age. The median age of those who have died from the virus in Italy is 80.5 years.
7. On call for Ireland
The phenomenal response of 30,000 and rising healthcare personnel to the recruitment drive across the health service in preparation for the expected Covid-19 surge is hugely heartening not only for those on the health and contingency frontline but also the watching public.
The Be On Call for Ireland campaign to enlist healthcare professionals who are not already working in the public health service was launched at lunchtime on St Patrick's Day. After 24,000 had signed up in the first 24 hours, Minister for Health Simon Harris tweeted: "What an amazing national effort. Ireland, I love you!"