2020’s 20 most-read stories on Ars Technica

Let’s just state the obvious: 2020 stank. It has been a terrible year on so many metrics, no matter where on this celestial orb you live. So we’re going to do something slightly different this time around for our top 20 most-read stories. We’re going to have two lists: the top 5 COVID-19 related stories and everything else. So if you have had more COVID coverage than you can possibly handle, please—skip ahead with our blessing. If not, here we go:

2020 in review, COVID section

5. Here’s what WHO says your mask should have to prevent COVID-19 spread

One thing we’ve prided ourselves on throughout our 22-year history is that we educate people. When we launched back in late 1998, that meant covering stuff like overclocking Celerons. In 2020, we did the same thing, but with COVID-19. So it’s fitting that the first story on the COVID-only countdown is about how to choose a good mask.

Early on in the pandemic, there was confusing messaging on masks, and it wasn’t until late spring that the World Health Organization issued guidance to mask the public. “This is new novel research, that WHO commissioned, that we didn’t have a month ago,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on the COVID-19 response. In short, three-layer masks are the best, with hydrophobic material on the outside and hydrophilic materials on the inside.

4. SARS-CoV-2 looks like a hybrid of viruses from two different species

In order to treat the novel coronavirus, you need to grok the coronavirus. Or as Dr. John Timmer put it,

One of the longest-running questions about this pandemic is a simple one: where did it come from? How did a virus that had seemingly never infected a human before make a sudden appearance in our species, equipped with what it needed to sweep from China through the globe in a matter of months?

What we’ve learned from studying SARS-Covid-2 will help us once the next pandemic comes along. Hopefully we have at least another century until that happens.

3. Results from the remdesivir COVID-19 trial are out, and it’s good news

At our current point in 2020, this story by Jonathan Gitlin is a great illustration of how treatment modalities evolve as more research is done and data is accumulated. In the early days of the pandemic, remdesivir, an antiviral developed in response to Ebola outbreaks, seemed like a promising avenue of treatment. And in the study we reported in May, it certainly was: study participants infected with COVID-19 saw their recovery time drop from an average of 15 days to 11.

But then remdesivir didn’t turn out to be the breakthrough treatment we were all hoping for. In fact, a massive global study that reported results in October showed that remdesivir doesn’t do a whole lot to treat COVID-19. “Between the two groups, WHO found that remdesivir did not reduce mortality. It also did not change how many patients progressed to needing mechanical ventilation, nor did it change the proportion of patients discharged after seven days of hospitalization,” Dr. Beth Mole wrote.

2. CDC’s failed coronavirus tests were tainted with coronavirus, feds confirm

Another one from the early days of the pandemic. In this case, it’s a story that presaged the difficulties faced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As COVID-19 was in the beginning stages of its march across the US in February, the CDC sent lab test kits to states. There was one major problem: the kits themselves were contaminated with SARS-CoV-2.

“It was just tragic,” Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said at the time. “All that time when we were sitting there waiting, I really felt like, here we were at one of the most critical junctures in public health history, and the biggest tool in our toolbox was missing.”

1. Don’t Panic: The comprehensive Ars Technica guide to the coronavirus

This was also the most-read story of the year (and one of the most-read stories of the past decade on Ars). Updated over 20 times in the period of a month, this guide was an invaluable resource to our readers in the early stages of the pandemic.

Nearly 10 months after initial publication, with first responders getting vaccinated, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may be faint, but it’s there, and it’s approaching. So let’s end this section of the 2020 recap with a reminder from our comprehensive guide.

You should be concerned and take this seriously. But you should not panic.