Key coronavirus questions as tens of thousands gather at protests across US

Jessica Glenza
Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Unrest has swept across the United States since George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in custody of Minneapolis police. Since then, protests have swelled in dozens of towns and cities across the country. 

Tens of thousands of people have been standing shoulder to shoulder as they protest against the killing of George Floyd, after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes despite his cries that he could not breathe.

But the public health emergency that engulfed the nation – Sars-Cov-2, the virus which causes Covid-19 - has not disappeared. Here are this week’s main developments on Covid-19, as American wrestles with civil unrest.

Where are cases of coronavirus increasing?

More cases are being detected in a number of southern states, including Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. But cases are not increasing only in southern states. Alaska, Montana and California have also seen cases increase. In total, 17 states are seeing increases. 

These increases reflect infections that may have taken place weeks ago. The novel coronavirus has a long incubation period, and people may not get tested until they feel ill. 

Where are cases of coronavirus decreasing? 

Broadly speaking, the states which had the worst outbreaks this spring and the most severe stay-at-home orders are bending the curve downward. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington DC and seven other states are all seeing reductions in cases. 

Mass protests began in Minnesota last week over the killing of Floyd on 25 May, but it may take weeks for increases in case to show up in testing data, because of the virus’s long incubation period. It is also unclear whether temperature could play a role in limiting the spread of this disease now that summer is approaching. 

When will we get a vaccine? 

First, there is still no guarantee we will get a vaccine.

“There’s never a guarantee, ever, that you’re going to get an effective vaccine,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, the United State’s leading expert on infectious diseases, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Fauci made the comments Tuesday, in a podcast of the Journal of the American Medical Association

Even if there is a vaccine, Fauci said, questions remain about how long it would provide immunity. That said, scientists are bullish on the prospects of finding an effective vaccine.

More results are expected in the late fall from a promising candidate being developed by the American biotech company Moderna, and manufacturing capacity is already being ramped up. 

Producers will begin making doses of the vaccine before clinical trials are ready. That way, up to 100m doses could be ready within weeks of vaccine approval, not months. More data is expected on Moderna’s vaccine in the late fall.

If a vaccine is proven safe and effective during that time frame, it would shatter the world record for fastest vaccine development. Currently, the fastest vaccine to ever be developed was for mumps, a disease which causes swelling of the glands and in rare cases more severe complications for adults. That took four years.

Have scientists found new treatments?

There is still no drug proven to shorten the duration or severity of symptoms of Covid-19, although studies are underway for a variety of potential treatments. 

In the United States, the antiviral medication called remdesivir has shown promise early results, and the NIAID is continuing to study the drug for effectiveness. Gilead, which owns the drug’s patent, has released thousands of doses to US hospitals for doctors to treat patients under emergency provisions. 

After being promoted by Donald Trump, one of the most talked about drugs to treat Covid-19 is hydroxychloroquine. Early lab studies indicated the drug might be effective against coronavirus, but drugs can act very differently in the complex environment of the human body. There is still no proof hydroxychloroquine is effective in treatment of Covid-19, and several studies have had negative results. 

Discussion of the drug is likely to continue. A large study of more than 96,000 people, which resulted in the World Health Organization stopping its hydroxychloroquine trials, has come under scrutiny from scientists around the world. Scientists are demanding the source of the data from the study, which a Guardian investigation revealed came from a tiny, little-known American company

When will life go back to ‘normal’? 

“Normal” depends on many, many things. Much of what life looks like right now depends on where you live, and many things will be changed for a long time ahead. 

As cases decrease in New York City, the US metropolis worst affected by the outbreak is tiptoeing toward the first stage of reopening on 8 June. For example, the New York governor just announced children’s day camps can reopen on 29 June. But large gatherings at events such as baseball games or concerts still appear to be a long way off. 

Ahead of the US election in November, the Republican National Committee has announced it will relocate its convention from North Carolina, after the Democratic governor there said he could not guarantee that thousands of people could meet in the convention center in August as planned.