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The Latest On The Coronavirus That's Causing COVID-19

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's been five months since a cluster of cases presumed to be pneumonia were reported in Wuhan, China. Researchers eventually identified a new coronavirus, and since then, they've been scrambling to better understand it and COVID-19, the disease it causes. One of the many people studying the virus is Dr. Ada Adimora, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And she joins us now to talk about what more we know this weekend about the virus that we didn't know five months ago or even a few weeks ago.

Thank you for joining us, Dr. Adimora.

ADA ADIMORA: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As I said in the introduction, this initially presented as a cluster of pneumonia cases, so it was considered to be mainly a respiratory ailment. But now we're hearing about blood clotting, neurological effects. What does this virus do?

ADIMORA: So as with most infections, this virus can cause a spectrum of illness. But in addition, though, this virus sometimes does some very weird things. And that's, I think, what you're alluding to 'cause it sometimes activates something called the cytokine release syndrome or cytokine storm. It's where you have an out-of-control immune system response, and this can cause multiple-organ failure. And probably in association with this - it's really not well understood - there appear to be some coagulation or clotting abnormalities, and these, too, are also among the things that can kill people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you're saying it's not well understood - I've heard doctors say that they've never seen a virus behave like this before. Is that something that you agree with?

ADIMORA: I would tend to agree, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what treatment at the moment looks the most promising?

ADIMORA: Well, a few days ago, the NIH announced some preliminary evidence that a drug called remdesivir may decrease the time that it takes to recover and possibly slightly decrease the risk of death, but this information is still preliminary. They haven't released all the data yet. And it's clear that the drug is not likely a magic bullet. But, you know, from preliminary evidence, it suggests that we're better off than we were, say, a week ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, you're an epidemiologist here in the United States. And the U.S. now has a higher coronavirus death toll than any other country. Did you expect that?

ADIMORA: Well, yes and no. I mean, I guess one thing that, you know, many of us haven't really taken into account is we have some sources of infection that are probably less common than in other nations. There have been some substantial outbreaks in places like food processing plants and also in prisons. In the case of prisons, it's an obvious disaster for people - for the incarcerated people, but staff can also acquire the infection, which they can then spread to their families and to others in the community. What happens to one of us really does affect all of us in this country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And one of the most significant communities that are really being affected, of course, are African Americans. One out of every three Americans to have died from COVID-19 was black. How much do researchers know about why black communities are so disproportionately affected?

ADIMORA: A major reason for this is poverty. And it's well-known, you know, that poverty itself is associated with increased mortality. And African Americans are disproportionately poor and are more likely to live in high-poverty areas and more likely to experience racism due, you know, in large part to past and ongoing, actually, laws and policies. You know, there was disproportionate targeting for predatory loans prior to the Great Recession, police violence, sentencing inequities and disproportionate incarceration. And all of these things increase personal risk of poverty, and they also destroy black neighborhoods.

A second huge and related issue is lack of adequate health insurance, which makes people reluctant - not only reluctant but, in fact, unable to get health care to prevent and to properly treat the conditions that increase your risk of dying from coronavirus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Ada Adimora of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Adimora, thank you very much.

ADIMORA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.