Coronavirus Morning News Brief – Sept. 17: Neanderthal Genes Are Linked to Severe Covid Risk, Toddler Dies from Brain-Eating Amoeba

By Jonathan Spira on 17 September 2023
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A country road in Italy near Bergamo

Good morning. This is Jonathan Spira reporting. Here now the news of the pandemic from across the globe on the 1,285th day of the pandemic and the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

In news we report today, Neanderthal genes have been linked to severe Covid cases, a toddler died from brain-eating amoeba, and new research may help Long Covid patients with severe chronic fatigue,.


Neanderthal Genes Are Linked to Severe Covid Risk

A new study coming out of Bergamo, Italy,  suggests that genes inherited from Neanderthals make people twice as likely to develop severe pneumonia along with a SARS-CoV-2 infection than those who do not have the genes, and three times as likely to be hospitalized in intensive care or put on ventilators.

The study, conducted by scientists at the Instituto di Recherche Farmacologiche Mario Negli in Milan and published in the journal iScience, results from several years of analyzing possible links between DNA variations and SARS-CoV-2.  The work was based on a sample of 10,000 people in the Bergamo area.  It identified several genes associated with the development of severe respiratory illness and three of those genes belonged to a haplotype inherited from Neanderthals.

Bergamo was one of the first global epicenters in the early days of the Pandemic.


A promising research program may end up helping many people with chronically fatiguing illnesses, including Long Covid and myalgic encephalomyelitis. Paul Hwang, an NIH scientist, was contacted by a patient with severe chronic fatigue, an action that led Hwang down a long road of discovery.

Hwang found that skin cells from the patient were creating an excess amount of WASF3, a protein that forms a multiprotein complex that links receptor kinases and actin.  The overabundance of the protein was literally jamming up the patient’s mitochondria. Mitochondrion are organelles in which the biochemical processes of respiration and energy production occur, thus resulting in the patient’s fatigue.

The next step from Hwang’s laboratory – which is comprised of just four scientists – is a clinical trial with the off label use of a drug that just came to market for another condition.


SARS-CoV-2 symptoms are shifting once again. While earlier waves of Covid had hallmark symptoms such as a dry cough or the loss of taste or smell, the current wave of patients is presenting with milder symptoms that are mostly concentrated in the upper respiratory tract.

A sore throat is quite common, followed by severe congestion.  Sneezing is also a frequently-cited symptom.

If you are suffering from a stuffy nose, you may want to reach for something other than Sudafed.  Earlier in the week, advisers to the Food and Drug Administration reported that phenylephrine, an ingredient in Sudafed and other common decongestants, is not effective at in relieving nasal congestion and the recommendation could cause the FDA to yank the products from the market.

“Modern studies, when well conducted, are not showing any improvement in congestion with phenylephrine” said Dr. Mark Dykewicz, an allergy specialist at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

Drugmakers began using phenylephrine after a 2006 law mandated that decongestants containing pseudoephedrine be kept in a secured manner and that customers must ask a sales clerk for the product.

Large pharmacy chain stores including CVS and Walgreens began accepting appointments for obtaining a dose of the new 2023 coronavirus vaccine.  A check by the Morning News Brief in one dozen jurisdictions across the country showed excellent availability, generally starting on Tuesday of the coming week.


The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency in the United Kingdom said on Sunday it has approved an updated coronavirus vaccine by Moderna. The move makes the Moderna vaccine the second shot to be used authorized for use in the country’s vaccination campaign this autumn.

The highly mutated omicron subvariant BA.2.86 was detected in Germany for the first time, the Robert Koch Institut in Germany reported on Sunday. The subvariant has recently been detected in multiple countries including Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  The World Health Organization has labeled it a “variant under monitoring.”


An Arkansan died from an Naegleria fowleri, an infection commonly referred to as the “brain-eating amoeba” (and no, this is not The Onion).  The patient, a toddler, is believed to have contracted the infection at a pool or splash pad at a country club.

The amoeba destroys brain tissue, causing the organ to swell.

Approximately three people in the United States contract Naegleria fowleri each year, according to the state’s Department of Health, and the cases are usually fatal.   Health officials in Arkansas said that there was no threat to the public at the present time.

Health authorities in southern India are rushing to stem the spread of the deadly Nipah virus. The virus is less transmissible than SARS-CoV-2 but it exhibits a much higher fatality rate.  There have been two deaths in Kerela, a state in that part of the country.  Contacts of the handful of people who have tested positive with the virus are being identified and isolated.  People who contract the Nipah virus will typically experience early symptoms such as a headache and or drowsiness, followed by seizures or, in severe cases, a comatose state.


Now here are the daily statistics for Sunday, September 17.

As of Sunday morning, the world has recorded just over 695.39 million Covid-19 cases, an increase of 0.03 million from the previous day, and 6.92 million deaths, according to Worldometer, a service that tracks such information. In addition, 667.46 million people worldwide have recovered from the virus, an increase of 0.07 million from the prior day.

The reader should note that infrequent reporting from some sources may appear as spikes in new case figures or death tolls.

Worldwide, the number of active coronavirus cases as of Sunday at press time is 20,979,575, a decrease of 50,000. Out of that figure, 99.8%, or 20,941,631, are considered mild, and 0.2%, or 37,944, are listed as critical. The percentage of cases considered critical has not changed over the past eight months.

The test positivity rate for Covid in the United States for the week ending September 9 was 23.05% down from 23.13% the prior week, according to data from the CDC Respiratory Virus Laboratory Emergency Department Network Surveillance, or RESP-LENS By comparison, the test positive rate for influenza was 1.27%, up from 1.05%, and, for RSV, that figure was 1.25%, up from 0.88%.

The percentage of deaths due to Covid was 2.3% in the week ending September 9, 2023, a figure that is up 4.5% over the previous week.

Finally, the number of hospital admissions from Covid for seven days ending September 2 was 18,871, a figure that is up 8.7% over the preceding week.

As of March 25, 2023, the Morning News Brief began to update case data as well as death tolls on a weekly basis.  In addition, as of May 15, 2023, the Morning News Brief has pressed pause on certain data sets as we assess the update of changes in reporting by U.S. health authorities at the CDC.  Where appropriate, the Morning News Brief has reintroduced data sets where they have become available.

Since the start of the pandemic, the United States has, as of Sunday, recorded 108.43 million cases, a higher figure than any other country, and a death toll of 1.18 million. India has the world’s second highest number of officially recorded cases, 45 million, and a reported death toll of 531,930.

The newest data from Russia’s Rosstat state statistics service showed that, at the end of July 2022, the number of Covid or Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic there in April 2020 is now 823,623, giving the country the world’s second highest pandemic-related death toll, behind the United States.  Rosstat last reported that 3,284 people died from the coronavirus or related causes in July 2022, down from 5,023 in June, 7,008 in May and 11,583 in April.

Meanwhile, France is the country with the third highest number of cases, with 40.14 million, and Germany is in the number four slot, with 38.43 million total cases.

Brazil, which has recorded the third highest number of deaths as a result of the virus, 705,313, has recorded 37.79 million cases, placing it in the number five slot.

The other five countries with total case figures over the 20 million mark are South Korea, with 34.57 million cases, as number six; Japan, with 33.8 million cases placing it in the number seven slot; and Italy, with 26 million, as number eight, as well as the United Kingdom, with 24.69 million, and Russia, with 23 million, as nine and ten respectively.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that, as of August 5, the total number of updated bivalent doses given in the United States was 153.57 million, an increase of 1.06 million doses over the past month.

Older – and no longer updated – data from the CDC shows that over 270.2 million people in the United States – or 81.4% – have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine as of May 11, 2023. Of that population, 69.5%, or 230.6 million people, have received two doses of vaccine, and the total number of doses that have been dispensed in the United States is now over 676.7 million. Breaking this down further, 92.23% of the population over the age of 18 – or 238.2 million people – has received at least a first inoculation and 79.1% of the same group – or 204.3 million people – is fully vaccinated.

Some 70.5% of the world population has received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine by Sunday, according to Our World in Data, an online scientific publication that tracks such information.  So far, 13.46 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered on a global basis and 21,556 doses are now administered each day.

Meanwhile, only 32.6% of people in low-income countries have received one dose, while in countries such as Canada, China, Denmark, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, at least 75% of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine.

Only a handful of the world’s poorest countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia and Nepal – have reached the 70% mark in vaccinations. Many countries, however, are under 20% and, in countries such as Haiti, Senegal, and Tanzania, for example, vaccination rates remain at or below 10%.

In addition, with the beginning of vaccinations in North Korea in late September, Eritrea remains the only country in the world that has not administered vaccines in any significant number.

Paul Riegler contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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