The world is in a panic over a coronavirus, specifically COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019). The stock market has dropped precipitously, airport travel has plummeted, vacations are being cancelled and students are returning early from foreign countries. There is a lot of misinformation about COVID-19, and perhaps reviewing some basic concepts will allay readers’ fears or at least enhance an understanding of the situation.
1. What is a virus? Viruses are microscopic organisms that do not have the ability to reproduce. Thus, they survive by becoming parasites, invading the cells of host organisms, hijacking the cells’ functions, replicating, and then invading other cells.
2. How are viruses classified? Viruses may be classified according to their microscopic appearance, how they reproduce or what diseases they cause. For example, the AIDS virus (also called HIV), rabies virus and polio virus are named after their respective diseases. The coronavirus, on the other hand, is named after its microscopic appearance, it which crown-type protuberances project from its outer layer. There are several types of coronavirus. One is called SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), after the epidemic it caused in 2003. The present coronavirus is called COVID-19, an abbreviation of Coronavirus Disease 2019.
3. Are viruses dangerous? It depends on the virus. The AIDS virus is diabolical in that it invades cells that create antibodies to fight infection, rendering the patient helpless. The polio virus attacks nerve cells that control muscle function, rendering the muscles useless. Rhinoviruses (named after the Greek word for nose) cause varieties of the common cold and are relatively benign.
4. How are viruses spread? Again, it depends on the virus. The AIDS virus is usually spread by sexual contact. The polio virus is usually spread by poor sanitation, such as when the septic system mixes with drinking water. Coronavirus attacks the respiratory cells and thus can be spread to others by airborne saliva created by coughing or sneezing, or by physical contact, such as shaking hands. The best way to contain spread is by quarantining those who are infected or may be infected.
5. What are the symptoms and course of the disease of the COVID-19? The most common symptoms are fever and cough, although diarrhea is seen in 4% of cases. Most cases are mild and last about one week. However, severe cases can result in hospitalization and even death, although this tends to happen in elderly or debilitated patients. The mortality rate is between 1% and 2%.
6. What is the incubation period of COVID-19? The incubation period, defined as the period of time between being infected and having symptoms, is two to seven days.
7. Is COVID-19 the same as the flu? No. Remember that viruses are often named for the diseases they cause. “Flu” is short for influenza, the name of the virus that causes the flu. However, they symptoms are similar. Keep in mind that there are many different flu viruses so that a different vaccine is needed when a new one arises.
8. Is there any treatment for COVID-19? Not at this point. There is no medication that can destroy the virus or prevent it from spreading to other cells in the body. Thus, treatment is symptomatic. A patient with difficulty breathing will be placed on a respirator. A patient was severe diarrhea will be given intravenous fluids. In these instances, it is hoped that the patient’s immune system counters the virus until these modalities are no longer necessary.
Viruses in general are notoriously difficult to treat. But there have been successes, especially with the AIDS virus. Thirty years ago, the diagnosis of AIDS was usually a death sentence. Now it is a chronic disease with a low mortality rate. But the main treatment of viruses has been prevention through vaccination. At this time, there is no vaccine for COVID-19.
9. How fast is COVID-19 spreading? At the time of this writing, there are about 86,000 cases in over sixty countries. Viral epidemics accelerate at different rates and then decline in a matter of months. No one can predict how COVID-19 will act at this early stage which is why there is so much anxiety.
10. Is there a laboratory test for COVID-19? Yes.
11. Have there been any recent viral epidemics? Yes. The most severe one was the Swine Flu epidemic in 2009. Twenty-two million Americans were infected and 4,000 died.
12. Why is everyone making a big deal about COVID-19 when the Swine Flu epidemic was much worse? At this point, nobody knows how many deaths COVID-19 will cause, resulting in considerable anxiety. Also, we live in a much more polarized political environment. If you are a Trump fan, you believe the President is doing his best to contain the problem. If you dislike the President, you believe he is handling the situation incompetently. Take your pick.
An excellent resource for readers with more questions is the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) website. (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html)