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Coronavirus exposes the trouble of scientific unknowns

July 10, 2020, 7:00 PM UTC

TGIF, readers.

If you missed any of our coverage for the first-ever virtual Brainstorm Health conference, look no further—we have a comprehensive roundup ready for you right here. From NBA commissioner Adam Silver to Seema Verma, the administrator of the powerful Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), to numerous Fortune 500 CEOs, it was an extraordinary meeting of minds.

It’s no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic took up a lot of the conversation. And while Americans may have started to get fatigued with the onslaught of COVID news (trust me, it’s exhausting on my end, too), there’s a very clear reason for the focus: There’s simply just so much we still don’t know.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the NIH leader who has become one of the most prominent faces in America’s response to the pandemic, highlighted some of those uncertainties today. “I have never seen a virus in which you have 20% to 40% of individuals who could have no symptoms at all, to individuals who get mild illness and do not need to go to a hospital, to people confined to their beds at home for weeks with multiple postviral syndromes,” he said during an International AIDS 2020 press conference this week.

Is the virus airborne, or is the bigger problem droplets from the nose and mouth which contain the virus and spread via surfaces and close contact? We still have more work to do in figuring that out, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Scientists across the globe have differing opinions and data on that very issue.

The WHO has been cautious about the issue of airborne transmission, especially outside with social distancing and masks. But updated guidance released on Thursday suggests it could be more of a concern indoors.

“There have been reported outbreaks of COVID-19 in some closed settings, such as restaurants, nightclubs, places of worship or places of work where people may be shouting, talking, or singing,” wrote the agency. “In these outbreaks, aerosol transmission, particularly in these indoor locations where there are crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces where infected persons spend long periods of time with others, cannot be ruled out.”

The WHO went on to add that more studies are urgently needed about how coronavirus transmission works.

For now it still appears that close and insulated contact, as well as droplets which may collect on surfaces, are still the major problem. But the fact of the matter is that it will take significantly more time to understand this pathogen’s full nature.

Read on for the day’s news, and have a wonderful weekend.

Sy Mukherjee
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com
@the_sy_guy

DIGITAL HEALTH

Do Americans trust Big Tech with their health data? Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and other tech giants have been rushing into the digital health field, including through apps that aim to deliver patients' personal health data directly to their phones and save them the hassle of having to fax a doctor for a medical record. But do Americans actually trust these firms with that task? My colleague Lance Lambert reports on a Fortune survey of nearly 1,300 American adults to see which firms are considered most trustworthy by the public. Key takeaways? 31% said they trusted Apple with their personal health information, 18% said they trusted Alphabet/Google Health (the lowest figure for any tech company in the survey), and 30% said they believe Amazon will be the most disruptive Big Tech firm in health care in the next five years. (Fortune)

INDICATIONS

Gilead says remdesivir slashes death risk. It's complicated. Gilead shot out a press release on Friday claiming that its COVID-19 treatment, remdesivir, significantly lowers the risk of death among critically ill patients (to the tune of 62% reduced mortality risk). But that figure, and the release itself, is filled with nuances. For one thing, that 62% topline figure is "relative risk" rather than "absolute risk," an important nuance in clinical studies. And then there's the issue of the study, which was not a randomized clinical trial. It's still encouraging stuff, but as Gilead and several prominent health experts have pointed out, we're going to need a lot more information before hailing this study as a significant victory.

BioNTech reportedly thinks its coronavirus vaccine could be ready for approval by December. The German biotech BioNTech is bullish about its experimental coronavirus vaccine's chances, according to the Wall Street Journal. BioNTech, which is partnered with American drug giant Pfizer, believes that the vaccine candidate could prove effective in time to apply for regulatory approval by December, setting up mass manufacturing by 2021. But the company's CEO also cautioned that it will take years to fully contain the pandemic given how many people across the world have already been infected. (Wall Street Journal)

THE BIG PICTURE

More than 20 states now require wearing face masks in public. As cases continue to swell in the U.S., more than 20 states have now issued face mask requirements in public. The mask mandates have been issued in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, according to NPR. (NPR)

REQUIRED READING

Gold is booming during COVID-19. Smuggling is too. by Jeremy Kahn

There's more evidence linking TB vaccines and lower COVID death ratesby Grady McGregor

How IBM Watson computers are speeding up the search for a COVID-19 vaccineby Jen Wieczner

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