Public health experts in service of journalism.

Information equity is a public health issue. Health Desk provides rapid responses to health questions from fact-checkers and journalists. We host content about COVID-19 vaccine created by Science Media Centres around the world.

Does COVID-19 impact men worse than women?

Data from around the world has demonstrated the fact that men are impacted more greatly than women by COVID-19. For example, men are more likely to be hospitalized with severe symptoms of the virus and have higher mortality rates than women; and this finding is consistent across age groups and geographies. Researchers have been trying to understand the causes of this and are developing hypotheses to explain the differences between the immune systems' response to COVID-19 in men and women. At this stage, they are exploring these disparities using biological, social, and behavioral lenses. Based on previous studies with similar viruses, data has illustrated that sex differences in immunity are caused by both genetic as well as hormonal differences between women and men. For example, in females, hormones such as estrogen and progesterone may be protective against the virus, yet it is possible testosterone does the opposite for men. In terms of underlying illnesses, the data also illustrates that men are more likely to suffer from hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes than women. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have learned that these types of underlying conditions have been associated with a higher risk of complications from COVID-19. Behavioral factors may also explain this difference. For instance, females may be more likely to be frontline workers than men, which could create more risks for exposure. In terms of lifestyle, men tend to be more likely to be smokers, which is a risk factor for COVID-19 since it is a respiratory illness. From past studies, we also know that men are less likely to seek out medical care when there's a problem in comparison to women, which means they may interact with the health system at a later stage in the disease when symptoms are more severe. Similarly, in the case of COVID-19, men are less likely to engage in behaviors like mask-wearing and hand-washing, which may increase their risk of contracting the disease. Source: Dr. Sabra Klein (Johns Hopkins University)

What do people mean when they refer to COVID-19 as being a blood vessel disease?

Patients who have been infected with COVID-19 can sometimes develop severe symptoms. Some of these symptoms include things like blood clots, heart problems, and "COVID toes." One thing all of these issues have in common is their link to blood vessels, which are the tubes that deliver blood and oxygen throughout the body. When these tubes, and the cells that line the insides of the tubes (endothelial cells), have challenges carrying and spreading blood to organs and tissues, issues like blood clots, kidney damage, inflammation of the heart and swelling of the brain (encephalitis) can occur in patients. This is why some doctors are calling the virus a "vasculotropic" virus (virus that affects blood vessels). More research is needed to present such findings conclusively. Though COVID-19 was originally thought to be a respiratory illness, some researchers believe that the virus may be able to move from the lungs into the blood vessels (pulmonary system), often causing additional symptoms such as the ones mentioned above. While some patients have been impacted by blood vessel-related symptoms, more research is still needed to determine its exact impacts on the body and its organs. At this point in time, blood clots due appear to be a major cause of negative health outcomes in patients with severe cases of COVID-19, bringing heightened awareness to the potential involvement of blood vessels and blood flow as an effect of the virus.

What does it mean to have a fever?

Having a fever means that your body temperature has temporarily increased and it is a signal that your body may be fighting off an infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control define a fever as a measured temperature of at least 100.4°F (38°C), slightly higher than the average human temperature of 98.6°F (37°C). Fevers are one of the immune system's first reactions to a pathogen - such as a virus or bacteria entering the body. Fevers can also be caused by environmental factors like heat stroke or biological responses like alcohol withdrawal. Your body senses these potential threats and forces itself to raise its temperature (by creating a fever, through chemicals in your blood called 'pyrogens') to make it difficult for the pathogen to use your body as a host and reproduce viruses or bacteria. Normal body temperatures change every day and usually vary between 97.6°F (36.4°C) and 99.6 °F (37.5°C) with lower body temperatures generally occurring in the morning and higher temperatures occurring at night. For most adults, short-term fevers shouldn't be alarming unless it reaches 103°F (39.4°C) or higher. For infants younger than 3 months, a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher signals a fever and in that case a doctor should be contacted. For infants between 3 - 24 months, a rectal temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) signals a fever that should also be discussed with a doctor. For other young children, even slight fevers can signal infections, so a doctor should be consulted if a fever appears.

What are the three phases of vaccine testing?

Substantial research needs to be completed by scientists before any potential vaccine undergoes phased testing. Once it gets to that stage, there are three research phases of trials that take place before the vaccine can be deployed for use. During the first stage (Phase I), the new vaccine is provided to small groups of people—the first time the vaccine is tested in humans. The second stage (Phase II) involves testing the vaccine on people who have similar characteristics (such as age and physical health) to the target population, or the group for which the vaccine is intended. The goal of this stage is to identify the most effective dosages and schedule for Phase III trials. The final stage (Phase III) provides the vaccine to thousands of people from the target population to see how safe and effective it is. Once the vaccine clears this last stage, the manufacturer can apply for a license from regulatory authorities (like the FDA) to market for human use. Sometimes medications that have already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration in clinical trials will enter into a Phase IV trial. This phase focuses on potential side effects from the vaccine or medication that were not seen in the first three phases. This phase also helps researchers understand how well a vaccine works over a longer time frame and how safe it is, often with thousands of people over several years. Phase IV is also called a 'post-marketing surveillance' trial.

Can the virus be transmitted through the air?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus that causes COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets (little spit droplets that fly out when a person sneezes, coughs or talks). Respiratory droplets can infect other people who are nearby, or indirectly infect others when they touch a surface contaminated with infected droplets. After an open letter by scientists in July 2020, the WHO now acknowledges the possibility of airborne transmission, which is caused by smaller and lighter 'droplet nuclei' (residuals of respiratory droplets from infected people) that can remain in the air for longer periods of time and remain infectious over long distances. Experts are looking at previous data from China to see whether the virus may spread through the air or through vents via airborne transmission. While a few lab-based studies have found that the virus can be present in the air for up to three hours, these studies did not assess if the virus is viable to infect anyone else. Recently, a research study published in Nature found viral contamination in air samples from patients isolated at a medical center, which supports the use of airborne isolation precautions in caring for COVID-19 cases. A few studies have also looked into how airborne transmission may have played a role in certain outbreaks, such as the one in the Diamond Princess cruise ship. One of these studies in pre-print found that it was likely that a combination of both close-range (respiratory droplet) transmission and long-range (airborne) transmission contributed similarly to disease progression aboard the ship. Thus far, the WHO still claims that evidence points to close person-to-person respiratory droplet transmission as the primary mode of COVID-19 transmission. However, experts warn that there is significant reason to believe airborne transmission is happening. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now provides infection control recommendations for airborne transmission as well as respiratory droplet transmission. Definitive studies may take a long time to alter the body of evidence in the coming weeks and months, but proactive prevention measures such as universal use of masks (the U.S. CDC recommends wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask for increased protection) could save lives in the meantime.

Our mission

Health Desk is an initiative by Meedan.

Healh Desk is committed to making important and topical COVID-19 information accessible and deadline-friendly to newsrooms, freelance journalists, fact-checking organizations, and communicators around the world, in the languages important for you and your audiences.

Health Desk provides context, summaries, and responses to key COVID-19 topics and questions. We are happy to follow-up with more information as-needed, especially when new research might shift the latest scientific understanding of an issue.

Our content comes directly from partnerships with journalists, fact-checking organizations and other non-profit organizations to make sure our research and summaries cover the topics that matter the most.

Our growing team of experts includes researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Stanford Health Communications Initiative, and scientists with experience working around the world and in multiple languages.

Is there a COVID-19 topic or question you’d like us to work on? Send us a question and our experts will do their best to help you.

Statement on editorial independence
Published by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation Meedan, Health Desk commits to independent, nonpartisan reporting and analysis of the topics it covers.As a non-profit organization, Meedan has funders that may in some cases be the subject of discussion and reporting on the Misinfodemia show. We commit to proactive disclosure of any funding, as well as disclosure of other relevant professional relationships between our reporters, editors, producers and funding organizations.Funders of Meedan play no role in editorial decisions, including our selection of content, or hiring or commissioning of contributors.

Our mission

Health Desk is an initiative by Meedan.

Healh Desk is committed to making important and topical COVID-19 information accessible and deadline-friendly to newsrooms, freelance journalists, fact-checking organizations, and communicators around the world, in the languages important for you and your audiences.

Health Desk provides context, summaries, and responses to key COVID-19 topics and questions. We are happy to follow-up with more information as-needed, especially when new research might shift the latest scientific understanding of an issue.

Our content comes directly from partnerships with journalists, fact-checking organizations and other non-profit organizations to make sure our research and summaries cover the topics that matter the most.

Our growing team of experts includes researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Stanford Health Communications Initiative, and scientists with experience working around the world and in multiple languages.

Is there a COVID-19 topic or question you’d like us to work on? Send us a question and our experts will do their best to help you.

Statement on editorial independence
Published by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation Meedan, Health Desk commits to independent, nonpartisan reporting and analysis of the topics it covers.As a non-profit organization, Meedan has funders that may in some cases be the subject of discussion and reporting on the Misinfodemia show. We commit to proactive disclosure of any funding, as well as disclosure of other relevant professional relationships between our reporters, editors, producers and funding organizations.Funders of Meedan play no role in editorial decisions, including our selection of content, or hiring or commissioning of contributors.

Nat Gyenes

Nat Gyenes, MPH, leads Meedan’s Digital Health Lab, an initiative dedicated to addressing health information equity challenges, with a focus on the role that technology plays in mediating access to health through access to information. She received her masters in public health from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, with a focus on equitable access to health information and human rights. As a research affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, she studies the ways in which health information sources and outputs can impact health outcomes. She lectures at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on Health, Media and Human Rights. Before joining Meedan, Nat worked at the MIT Media Lab as a health misinformation researcher.

Megan Marrelli

Megan Marrelli is a Peabody award-winning journalist and the News Lead of Health Desk. She focuses on news innovation in today’s complex information environment. Megan has worked on the digital breaking news desk of the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, and on the news production team of the Netflix series Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. She was a Canadian Association of Journalists finalist for a team Chronicle Herald investigation into house fires in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On top of her role at Meedan Megan works with the investigative journalism incubator Type Investigations, where she is reporting a data-driven story on fatal patient safety failures in U.S. hospitals. She holds a Master of Science from the Columbia Journalism School and lives in New York.

Anshu Shroff

Anshu is a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a Humanitarian Studies, Ethics, and Human Rights concentrator at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. She is a Harvard Voices in Leadership writing fellow and student moderator, Prajna Fellow, and the John C. and Katherine Vogelheim Hansen Fund for Africa Awardee. Anshu’s interests include: systemic issues of emergency management, crisis leadership, intersectoral approaches to climate risk resilience, inclusion and human rights, international development, access and sustainability of global health systems, and socio-economic equity. Anshu has worked at the United Nations, UNDP, UNICEF, Gates Foundation, and the Institute of Healthcare Improvement.

Dr. Christin Gilmer

Dr. Christin Gilmer is a Global Health Scientist with a background in infectious diseases, international health systems, and population health and technology. In the last 15 years, Christin has worked for the WHO, University of Oxford, World Health Partners, USAID, UNFPA, the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights and more, including volunteering for Special Olympics International’s health programs and running health- and technology-based nonprofits across the country. She obtained her Doctor of Public Health Degree at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, her MPH at Columbia, and spent time studying at M.I.T., Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Business School. Christin has worked in dozens of countries across five continents and loves running programs and research internationally, but she is currently based in Seattle.

Dr. Jessica Huang

Dr. Jessica Huang is currently a COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Bloomberg City Leadership Initiative. Previously, she worked and taught with D-Lab at MIT, leading poverty reduction and humanitarian innovation projects with UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, USAID, foreign government ministries and community-based organizations across dozens of countries. She also co-founded a social enterprise that has provided access to safe drinking water to thousands in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Formerly trained as an environmental engineer, she earned a Doctorate of Public Health from Harvard and a Master’s in Learning, Design and Technology (LDT) from Stanford. Her projects have won multiple awards, including the top prize in A Grand Challenge for Development: Technology to Support Education in Crisis & Conflict Settings, and led to her being recognized for Learning 30 Under 30. She enjoys being an active volunteer, supporting several non-profits in health, education, environmental sustainability and social justice.

Jenna Sherman

Jenna Sherman serves as a Senior Project Coordinator at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, where she works on tech ethics with an emphasis on mitigating bias and discrimination in AI through policy. Concurrently, she’s pursuing an MPH at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Social and Behavioral Sciences, with concentrations in Maternal and Child Health and Humanitarian Studies, Ethics, and Human Rights. Jenna recently joined Meedan’s Digital Health Lab as a consultant for the COVID-19 Expert Database, following previous experiences helping to develop accessible drug pricing policies, advising governments globally on ethical policy frameworks for AI, and researching access to quality information and health resources of Brazilian women amidst the Zika crisis.

Nour Sharara

Nour is a Global Health Strategy consultant based in Dakar (Senegal) and specialized in health system strengthening. Most recently, she worked with Dalberg Advisors focusing on Epidemic Preparedness & Response and Vaccination Coverage and Equity across 15 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her previous work experiences include researching the clinical needs in point-of-care technology in cancer care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston; and coordinating the implementation of a colonoscopy quality assurance initiative for a colorectal cancer screening program at McGill University in Montreal. Nour has a Master of Public Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a Master of Arts in Medical Ethics and Law from King’s College London, and a Bachelor of Science from McGill University. She is fluent in French and English.

Shalini Joshi

Shalini Joshi is a Program Lead at Meedan and formerly the Executive Editor and co-founder of Khabar Lahariya - India’s only independent, digital news network available to viewers in remote rural areas and small towns. Shalini transformed Khabar Lahariya from one edition of a printed newspaper to an award-winning digital news agency available to over ten million viewers. She has a sophisticated understanding of local media and gender, and the ways in which they can inhibit women from participating in the public sphere in South Asia. Shalini was a TruthBuzz Partner & Fellow with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). She is a trainer in journalism, verification and fact-checking. She has designed, implemented and strengthened news reporting & editorial policies and practices in newsrooms and fact-checking organisations. Shalini set up and managed the tipline used to collect WhatsApp-based rumors for Checkpoint, a research project to study misinformation at scale during the 2019 Indian general elections.

Mohit Nair

Mohit Nair currently serves as Partnerships Director at FairVote Washington, a non-profit organisation based in Seattle, WA. Previously, he worked with the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Vienna Evaluation Unit and with MSF Operational Centre Barcelona in India. He has conducted research studies on diverse topics, including the drivers of antibiotic resistance in West Bengal and perceptions of palliative care in Bihar. Mohit has also worked as a research consultant with Save the Children in Laos to identify gaps in the primary health system and develop a district-wide action plan for children with disabilities. He holds a Master of Public Health from the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University.

Dr. Seema Yasmin

Seema Yasmin is an Emmy Award-winning medical journalist, poet, physican and author. Yasmin served as an officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where she investigated disease outbreaks. She trained in journalism at the University of Toronto and in medicine at the University of Cambridge. Yasmin was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news in 2017 with a team from The Dallas Morning News and received an Emmy Award for her reporting on neglected diseases. She received two grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and was selected as a John S. Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford University iin 2017 where she investigated the spread of health misinformation and disinformation during epidemics.

Saskia Popescu

Dr. Saskia Popescu is an infectious disease epidemiologist and infection preventionist with a focus on hospital biopreparedness and the role of infection prevention in health security efforts. She is an expert in healthcare biopreparedness and is nationally recognized for her work in infection prevention and enhancing hospital response to infectious diseases events. Currently, Dr. Popescu is an Adjunct Professor with the University of Arizona, and an Affiliate Faculty with George Mason University, while serving on the Coronavirus Task Force within the Federation of American Scientists, and on a data collection subcommittee for SARS-CoV-2 response with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. She holds a PhD in Biodefense from George Mason University, a Masters in Public Health with a focus on infectious diseases, and a Masters of Arts in International Security Studies, from the University of Arizona. Dr. Popescu is an Alumni Fellow of the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for Health Security. She is also an external expert for the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), and a recipient of the Presidential Scholarship at George Mason University. In 2010, she was a recipient of the Frontier Interdisciplinary eXperience (FIX) HS-STEM Career Development Grant in Food Defense through the National Center for Food Protection and Defense. During her work as an infection preventionist, she managed Ebola response, a 300+ measles exposure resulting in an MMWR article, and bioterrorism preparedness in the hospital system. More recently, she created and disseminated a gap analysis for a 6-hospital system to establish vulnerabilities for high-consequence diseases, helping to guide the creation of a high-consequence disease initiative to enhance readiness at the healthcare level.

Ben Kertman

Ben Kertman is a behavior change scientist and public health specialist who became a user research consultant to help organizations design experiences that change behaviors and improve human well-being. Impatient with the tendency of behavior change companies to use a single discipline approach (e.g. behavioral economics) and guard their methods behind paywalls, Ben spent the last 7 years developing an open-source, multi-discipline, behavior change framework for researchers and designers to apply to UX. Ben is an in-house SME at Fidelity Investments and consults for non-profits on the side. Ben holds a masters in Social and Behavior Science and Public Health from Harvard.

Emily LaRose

Emily LaRose is a Registered Dietitian and currently works as a consultant to The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). She has been a dietitian for more than 15 years and has previously worked for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), PATH, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and Johnson & Wales University. In her work she has written specialty reports on topics including global human milk banking practices and innovative food system programs; developed tools and protocols for clinical nutrition care delivery in humanitarian hospitals; taught university-level clinical nutrition courses; and provided nutritional care for critically ill hospitalized patients. Emily is currently a Doctor of Public Health candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health where she has completed the Nutrition and Global Health Concentration. She also holds a Master of Science in Dietetics from Kansas State University and a Bachelor of Science in Culinary Arts Nutrition from Johnson & Wales University.

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