Illness in children: Coincidence or coronavirus?
Strange new disease confounds scientists
Jayden Hardowar, a normally healthy, energetic, 8-year-old boy spiked a 103-degree fever on April 23. Per his doctor’s recommendation, his parents cared for him at their home in Queens, N.Y. But on April 28, he suddenly went into cardiac arrest, Hardowar’s father told WNBC-TV in New York.
Several hundred children in the United States and Europe have developed a similar illness possibly linked to COVID-19. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) causes severe inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body, including those in the heart, and resembles the rare Kawasaki disease. The cause of Kawasaki remains unknown, but it often follows a viral infection.
After the coronavirus peaked in New York City, pediatricians began observing a strange phenomenon: Children suddenly started experiencing symptoms such as fever, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, rashes, diarrhea, and very low blood pressure. In an online weekly call about COVID-19 on May 2, intensive care unit doctors from Europe and elsewhere described similar experiences, The Atlantic reported.
Like most of the children diagnosed with MIS-C, Hardowar tested negative for the virus that causes COVID-19 but positive for the antibodies, suggesting he contracted the virus weeks or even months before.
Researchers don’t know whether MIS-C is Kawasaki disease or if COVID-19 triggers it. Many experts believe the illness represents an immune system overreaction that increases in children even after they have recovered from the coronavirus. A team in Bergamo, Italy, published a study in The Lancet that found 8 out of 10 children with likely MIS-C had the coronavirus antibodies. They also found a “30-fold increased incidence of Kawasaki-like disease” between mid-February and April, after COVID-19 cases spiked compared to January and early February. But the link is not certain: Among 15 children diagnosed with MIS-C early on in New York, only 10 tested positive either for COVID-19 or the antibodies, according to Live Science.
More than 20 states have reported cases of MIS-C, and New York City has documented more than 161. At least four children, three in New York state and one in Maryland, have died of apparent MIS-C in recent weeks.
Experts emphasize the condition remains very rare. Although children who contract it do require hospitalization, most fully recover. Steven Kernie, the chief of critical care medicine at New York–Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, said all 30 of the children diagnosed with the illness at his facility responded well to standard inflammation treatment. “I do try to make the point that the kids seem to do really well,” he told The Atlantic.
Doctors warn not to assume that COVID-19 causes MIS-C. Researchers haven’t had enough time to collect and analyze the data sets necessary to confirm a connection.
“Now that we’re looking for it, this data is really subject to a lot of observational bias,” Jeffrey Kahn, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told Live Science. “It’s important to be very cautious at this point about coming up with any conclusions.”
Hardowar spent several days on a ventilator. His doctors sent him home on May 12. According to the latest reports, he is alert but still very weak.
The Templeton Foundation awarded its $1.3 million annual prize to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. The late John Templeton, an investor, banker, and philanthropist, established the award in 1973 to honor those whose work leads to new insights about religion through science. In his bestselling 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins argued faith can inspire scientific discovery. He has continued to speak about the topic since becoming NIH director in 2009.
When he was younger, Collins said he was “a committed materialist who found little use for anything that could not be addressed by scientific experimentation,” he wrote for the Templeton Foundation. But as a medical student, he came to see atheism as an irrational worldview: “And to my amazement, pointers to a Creator began to appear in all sorts of places, even including scientific observations about the universe.”
But some Christians question how Collins, who started the BioLogos Foundation to explore Christianity and science, chooses to reconcile the two.
“We believe the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God,” the organization’s website says. But Collins fervently believes in evolution and has described the first two chapters of Genesis are merely poetry or myth.
He also has clashed with pro-life advocates. Two years ago, Collins spoke in favor of research using tissue from aborted babies. “If something can be done with these tissues that might save somebody’s life downstream, perhaps that’s a better choice than discarding them,” he told reporters in 2018, according to Science Magazine. —J.B.
The results of a recent study suggest that when God designed marriage, He also hardwired our brains to desire long-term commitment.
Researchers used scans and saliva samples to analyze brain activity patterns and chemical changes in 19 recently married or soon-to-be-wed individuals. They ran brain scans while alternating showing the participants photos of their spouse and a well-known acquaintance. Meanwhile, they asked the participants to recall platonic memories with the pictured person. The researchers followed up one year later and published their study in Frontiers in Psychology on May 7.
The results showed that the brain regions that play a role in social bonding, reward, and motivation became much more active when participants looked at and thought about their spouses. The brain also produced more dopamine, a chemical associated with bonding, reward-seeking, pleasure, excitement, and euphoria. Activity in the region involved with negative judgment decreased. This happened both times the researchers ran the experiment, suggesting that falling in love and maintaining that love over time produces the brain changes.
But that doesn’t mean romance is reducible to brain chemicals, according to lead researcher Bianca Acevedo: “Our chemical impulses don’t buy flowers or cook dinner. … It takes work to find and keep love alive.” —J.B.
In the race to find a treatment for COVID-19, some researchers have turned to an unusual source: Winter, a 4-year-old brown llama who lives on a research farm in Belgium.
Llamas produce tiny, long-lasting antibodies called nanobodies that can nestle into viruses and prevent them from entering and infecting cells. In a study published on May 5 in the journal Cell, researchers harvested these nanobodies from Winter’s blood and engineered them to bind to and neutralize the protein spikes that stud the surface of the COVID-19 virus.
If the cells work in animal and human studies, scientists could use them for a treatment and a vaccine. The researchers are beginning preclinical trials in hamsters, The Washington Post reported. —J.B.