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5 things to know about COVID-19 this week

The WHO acknowledges emerging evidence of airborne transmission, Novavax receives the largest award yet for vaccine development, and PPE supplies begin to run low again.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, new information is coming out constantly. Here are five important developments from the past week.

1. The WHO has acknowledged that evidence is emerging of airborne spread of COVID-19, Reuters reported on Tuesday. The global health agency has long maintained that COVID-19 is primarily spread via large respiratory droplets that quickly fall to the ground, but in a letter published on Monday in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal, 239 scientists in 32 countries explained evidence that they say shows that smaller, floating virus particles can infect people who breathe them in.

Since these particles can hang in the air for much longer than large droplets do, the group is making a case for the WHO to update its guidance accordingly. In a WHO briefing on Tuesday, representatives acknowledged the possibility of airborne transmission, but said more evidence needed to be gathered.

2. Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine program, committed $1.6 billion to vaccine maker Novavax, CNN reported on Tuesday. Stanley Erck, the president and CEO of the Maryland-based biotech company, said on Monday that Novavax’s vaccine could be on the market by the first quarter of 2021.

Reuters reported that this award, the largest yet given out by the federal program, will cover a Phase 3 clinical trial (the last stage of human testing) that could start in October. Novavax has reported that it aims to have 100 million doses ready by January.

3. Antiviral drugs in development may soon be able to protect vulnerable populations while we wait for a vaccine, according to the president of a global health think tank. In an opinion piece on CNN’s website, William Haseltine, PhD, chair and president of ACCESS Health International, expressed some doubt in the accelerated efforts to create a COVID-19 vaccine, since early tests have already resulted in some serious side effects.

But even before a vaccine is ready for prime time, antivirals and monoclonal antibodies in development may be available to protect vulnerable populations from serious complications from COVID-19 relatively soon, Dr. Haseltine writes.

4. PPE supplies for medical workers are beginning to run low again, the AP reported on Tuesday. After the initial wave of the virus, and the ensuing nationwide scramble for protective gear, in March and April left some health care employees using makeshift materials to protect themselves, the supply chain has since somewhat rebounded. But now some medical professionals and lawmakers are expressing their concerns as shortages emerge again, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

5. Widespread use of masks could save tens of thousands of lives, according to a model from the University of Washington. NPR reported on Friday that the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation recently released a model showing that if wearing cloth or homemade masks becomes near-universal, it could prevent between 17,742 and 28,030 deaths across the U.S. before Oct. 1.

While this model demonstrates the power that masks may have to slow the spread of COVID-19, some public health officials worry that guidance from the WHO and the government to avoid masks early on in the pandemic (in an effort to preserve stocks for essential workers), may be why mask use in the U.S. has been uneven.

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