Tracking the virus: Three important developments

New DelhiEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: May 10, 2021, 11:32 AM IST
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Coronavirus pandemic (representative image) Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

There has been a discovery of a biomarker that can reliably predict whether infected patients will develop severe symptoms

Scientists in the Netherlands have trained bees to identify samples infected with the virus. It is a finding that could bring down the waiting time for a test result from hours and days to mere seconds.

In another major breakthrough, there has been a discovery of a biomarker that can reliably predict whether infected patients will develop severe symptoms.

And then a third big development which is worrying : doctors in Delhi have been witnessing a rise in cases of black fungus in patients once again. The symptoms include face numbness, nose obstructions and swelling in the eyes. Doctors say the infection can be fatal.

Breakthroughs or trends, but going forward all three of these will be tracked to shape our pandemic strategy.

The bees in the Netherlands are not ordinary, and it is no ordinary experiment. These insects have been trained to detect infected COVID-19 samples through their unusually keen sense of smell.

It is a finding that could cut the waiting time for test results to seconds. Scientists at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands have been training these bees for months.

They started off by giving the bees a treat: a sugar-water solution. Each time they were exposed to the scent of a mink infected with COVID-19 and each time they were exposed to a non-infected sample, they wouldn't get a treat. 

Eventually, the bees could tell the difference - they could identify an infected sample within a few seconds by extending their straw-like-tongue to drink sugar water. It was a confirmation of a positive coronavirus result - a quick & cheap method that could prove useful in countries where tests are scarce.

"We collect, we take the bees from honey beekeepers here in the region and we use a set of these every day and we put those bees in harnesses to fix them," said Wim van der Poel, a professor in virology and research leader, emerging and zoonotic viruses, at Wageningen University.

"Then we present coronavirus positive and coronavirus negative samples and after presenting a positive sample, we always present sugar water afterwards. So in the end the bees extend their proboscis after being presented a coronavirus positive sample and in that way we can train bees pretty quickly." 

Nearly 800 kilometres away, researchers at the University of Zurich have made another significant discovery. They have identified the first biomarker which can reliably predict which patient will develop severe symptoms.

A biomarker is a set number of natural killer T-cells in the blood. These cells are primarily white blood cells that are part of the early immune response.

Based on the biomarker, doctors will be able to decide which treatment and measures need to be taken for a certain patient.

In India, the struggle gets tougher. Doctors have reported rising cases of mucormycosis in the national capital. In the last two days, six patients have been hospitalised with a serious but rare fungal infection. Black fungus is caused by a group of moulds or micromycetes. 

These moulds live throughout the environment but mainly affect people with existing health issues or people who take medicines that lower the body's ability to fight germs.

The symptoms include face numbness, nose obstruction on one side, swelling in the eyes and pain. Experts say this disease can prove to be fatal.