On Thursday (March 5), confirmed global cases of COVID-19 have topped 100,000, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The milestone coincided with a number of developments in the response to the outbreak, including an emergency spending bill and the closure of a major university in the US and new, preliminary findings on the pathology of the virus. 

“This is not a drill,” Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated at a briefing on Thursday. “This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops.”

“This epidemic can be pushed back, but only with a collective, coordinated and comprehensive approach that engages the entire machinery of government,” Tedros continued. “We are calling on every country to act with speed, scale and clear-minded determination.”

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Today (March 6), President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill to address the coronavirus outbreak. The Trump Administration had initially requested just $2 billion, paid in part by siphoning money from Ebola research, but Congress passed a bill that does not require reallocating those resources.

Of the spending package, $3 billion will go toward research aimed at developing vaccines, treatments, and therapies, and $2.2 billion is earmarked to aid containment and testing efforts at the local, state, and federal levels. The State Department will receive $1.25 billion for use with overseas evacuations and containment, and for humanitarian purposes.

Universities Cancel Classes

Also this morning, the University of Washington became the first US college to announce that all in-person classes are being converted to online classes, as the Seattle area has been hit particularly hard by the outbreak. Universities in some other countries, including Italy, China, and South Korea, have already made the transition.

“Our goal is to complete this academic quarter with as little disruption to our students and their educational progress as possible,” university president Ana Mari Cauce tells the Times. The change will be effective Monday, March 9, and continue through March 20, which marks the end of the winter quarter. 

According to the Times, there are widespread concerns at US colleges about the bulk of the student body traveling during the upcoming spring break, potentially coming into contact with the virus, and bringing it back to campuses once classes resume.

Two SARS-CoV-2 Strains?

A team of researchers in China published a paper earlier this week suggesting that the global outbreak might be caused by two distinct strains of SARS-CoV-2. Their manuscript, which has not undergone peer review, reports that a genomic analysis of over 100 samples of SARS-CoV-2 reveals two distinct strains of the virus, with one more virulent than the other. 

Though there are fewer instances of the strain the researchers dub S type, which they say is associated with milder symptoms, they suggest it is the ancestral strain. The L type is newer, they write, but is far more aggressive and was much more prevalent than the S type in the early stages of the Wuhan outbreak.

Experts who spoke with the Los Angeles Times about the paper expressed some skepticism about its conclusions, however, and a published critique claims the research team “should retract their paper, as the claims made in it are clearly unfounded and risk spreading dangerous misinformation at a crucial time in the outbreak.”

Children Can Catch SARS-CoV-2

Younger demographics have been far less likely to become sick during the outbreak, so it hasn’t been clear whether they were contracting the virus as often as the older people around them. A preprint published Wednesday on medRxiv suggests that children are just as likely to harbor the virus as adults. 

“Kids are just as likely to get infected and they’re not getting sick,” Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, tells The New York Times. The lack of symptoms might explain why there haven’t been large outbreaks spreading through schools. Still, children could be passing the virus along to others who are at a higher risk of becoming severely ill, he says.

Lisa Winter is the social media editor for The Scientist. Email her at lwinter@the-scientist.com or connect on Twitter @Lisa831.

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