Sources and updates, February 26

  • Deaths in U.S. prisons: Throughout the pandemic, the UCLA COVID Behind Bars Data Project has been a leading source for data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in carceral settings. As COVID-specific data on prisons and jails have become more sporadic, the project recently turned its attention to overall mortality data in these settings. Last week, the UCLA team released a new dataset sharing all-cause deaths in prisons through 2020, which combines data from public reports and records requests. The full dataset is available on GitHub, and a summary of this project’s findings on all-cause mortality was published in the New York Times last weekend.
  • BIOFIRE syndromic trends data: BIOFIRE Diagnostics is a biotech company focused on diagnostic testing, offering tests for a variety of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. The company publishes anonymized test results from its labs on its Syndromic Trends dashboard; this dashboard is a helpful way to get an overview of test positivity for COVID-19 compared to other common diseases. (H/t Force of Infection.)
  • R&D roadmap for COVID-19 vaccines: The University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy has published a new report outlining the research and development steps needed for the world to produce coronavirus vaccines that are “broadly protective,” not tied to a specific variant. It includes recommendations for research on virology, immunology, and vaccine technologies, along with information on using animal models and guidance on vaccine policy. Related: the CDC’s Advisory Community on Immunization Practices met this week to discuss COVID-19 and other vaccines.
  • CDC reports on travel surveillance: Two new studies about COVID-19 among international travelers to the U.S. were published in this week’s CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Both studies describe results from the agency’s Travel Surveillance program, which is a collaboration with biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks and testing company XpresCheck. One report compares traveler test results from before and after the U.S. ended its pre-departure testing requirement for international flights, finding that travelers were much more likely to have COVID-19 after the requirement was lifted. The second report provides results from a pilot program testing airplane wastewater at JFK Airport; this report found that the vast majority of plane samples tested were positive for SARS-CoV-2, and researchers identified a variety of Omicron variants. More work is needed to really get airplane wastewater testing going in the U.S., but it’s good to see early results showing this program’s feasibility.
  • Early data from XBB.1.5 in NYC: Another notable study in CDC MMWR this week provided analysis from New York City’s health department on Omicron XBB.1.5. The subvariant was first identified in the city in October 2022 (though it may have evolved somewhere else), and quickly spread through the region; it accounted for 81% of sequenced COVID-19 test samples by early January. The NYC health department linked sequencing data with patient outcomes data, finding that people infected with XBB.1.5 were not significantly more likely to be hospitalized or to die from COVID-19 compared to those infected with other variants. In other words, XBB.1.5 appears to not cause more severe disease, based on this report.
  • Predicting COVID-19 cases based on wastewater results: One more newsworthy study to share this week: researchers at Hokkaido University developed a mathematical model to predict COVID-19 cases based on coronavirus concentration levels in Sapporo, Japan. I’m always on the lookout for studies like this, as wastewater data become increasingly important to track true infection numbers. (Here’s a prior example, from the University of Florida.) Of course, it’s worth noting that the Hokkaido researchers had consistent wastewater and case data from spring 2020 through 2022 to use for their model; for wastewater researchers working in the U.S. now, that consistency is often harder to achieve.

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