Coronavirus - The Basics (UPDATED)
The Coronavirus has officially been declared as a pandemic by the WHO.
In 61 countries around the world, schools have begun to close. A record number of nearly 421 million students are missing class globally (UNESCO).
France has officially commenced stage 3. In Switzerland, schools are closing canton by canton. In Geneva, schools are currently closed until April 8th and In Vaud until April 30th.
So, what’s going on? How did we get here? And what’s going to happen next?
For those who aren’t sure what this virus is: Coronaviridae is an extensive family of viruses that can cause illnesses in both humans and animals ranging from the common cold to more serious respiratory diseases (WHO). The strain that appears to be spreading at an exponential rate (Bloomberg opinion) with 69,688 active cases in over 150 territories globally, has been dubbed SARS-CoV-2 (Wikipedia).
The specific strain SARS-CoV-2 had never been seen before the beginning of the outbreak in November 2019 (Daily Mail). It is a sister to the SARS-CoV which caused an outbreak in China 2002, hence its name, SARS-CoV-2 (Daily Mail). The Wuhan Institute of Virology stated in February 2020 that SARS-CoV-2 has similar genetic makeup to that of TG13, a strain affecting bats (see fig 1). The sequence consistency or similarity between the two strains was found to be as high as 96% (abbkine.com). Thus, as popular rumour suggests, it is quite possible that the coronavirus originated from human contact with bats in the Wuhan province.
Studies show that this virus can live on surfaces for a few hours up to several days (WHO). Rumours suggest that CoV can survive in packages coming from China, however, the WHO explains that this is unlikely.
“The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.”
CoV can spread through most bodily fluids. For instance, it can even spread through tears (Ajazeera.com).
According to Science Focus, coughing spreads droplets as far as six metres and sneezing up to eight metres. The droplets can stay in the air for up to 10 minutes. This is the same for all viruses.
Those who display symptoms (dry cough, fever, and/or breathing problems) are encouraged to stay at home. Those living in areas with high levels of infection are encouraged to wear an N95 respirator (see fig 2).
According to the WHO and based upon reported cases, 3.4% of the infected have died. This is higher than the initial estimate of 2% and quite a lot higher than the seasonal flu which kills far less than 1% (heavy.com).
Those with a weakened immune system due to old age or underlying conditions are vulnerable to this virus. During his speech on live television, the French president Emmanuel Macron advised those over 70 years old and/or with underlying medical conditions to remain at home in isolation.
Yes, there is a vaccine in development, however, it will not be ready for at least another year.
The new vaccine follows the “plug and play” approach. Immunization Microbiologists (vaccine scientists) know the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 and understand how to build it. The approach puts this knowledge into practice. By taking a segment of CoV DNA and inserting it into a passive virus, a new harmless bug is created. In theory, the patient’s immune system can use the harmless bug to create antigens. These antigens should trigger an immune-response that can fight all genera of the coronavirus (BBC). If all goes well, vaccines against CoV should function like this in the future.
There is, of course, some good news. The number of new cases per day have begun to decline in China: On March 14, China reported only 8 new cases which is the lowest number since January. (ncov tracker)
If this data is accurate, the number of China's cumulative cases are due to reach a plateau (see fig 3). We can only hope that the number of active cases globally will soon begin to mimic this trend.
According to John Nicholls, a clinical professor of pathology in Hong Kong and an expert on Coronaviridae, four factors have a high influence upon the spread of CoV. The first and foremost being the weather. Nicholls claims the virus will die out in Asia during the month of May when temperatures rise and the weather becomes unfavourable for viral growth. “At 30 degrees Celsius, the virus becomes inactive.” (John Nicholls)
Evidence supports this claim. Australia, a country known to have higher average temperatures in March has far fewer cases than many European countries, yet the first confirmed case in Australia came before the first confirmed case in Italy.
This could also be due to other factors like population density. Australia has a population density that is far smaller than that of Italy, limiting the spread of CoV amongst Australians.
Travel also has a very significant impact. If you take a look at the coronavirus tracker map, the countries most affected at the current time also tend to be popular destinations for tourism.
Nicholls also mentions hygiene. This is self-explanatory.
“Discrimination and stigma are more dangerous than the virus itself.” -Dr Tedros, DG of WHO
There has been a lot of stigma surrounding people or businesses of Asian ethnicity because of CoV. If you’re on social media it’s likely that you have seen some horrifying reports of physical abuse towards East Asians in caucasian countries. Additionally, people have been avoiding Asian restaurants and shops. This is completely illogical and quite racist. Some are actively seeking out Asians to abuse them. Firstly, CoV is not the fault of any single race. Secondly, seeking out physical contact with someone who may have returned from their home country with CoV is actually a very good way to catch it.
“It sounds and looks as if it’s going to be a very highly transmissible virus [...] This virus may still be learning what it can do, we don’t know its full potential yet.”
-Robert Webster, infectious disease and avian flu expert
This virus is entirely new. Scientists and the media alike don’t have enough information about CoV to make any firm predictions.
It’s important to think about every piece of information you find. Rumours can lead to panic, and in times like these, we must remain calm and diligent.
Remember to follow health and safety procedures and be sceptical about some of the things you hear.
“As human beings, we should stand in unison.” -Dr Tedros, DG of WHO
Nevertheless, It’s probably best to stand at least 6 meters apart.