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This can’t be so bad, can it?
It is almost difficult to accept how one’s life can change overnight, more so when it’s the lives of a quarter of the entire world population. Many of us will either be entering into a period of self-isolation, or quarantine or have already been through the first couple of weeks. It is important however, that we slow the spread of the virus, ideally by placing restrictions on the way we essentially function as a population. But this mustn’t come as a surprise. Viruses will take advantage of tightly packed cities from which the disease can travel from host-to-host (effectively more like coast-to-coast).
It is no surprise that we are all connected to one another. In fact, to reach the entire population, it is said that each one of us needs to have five close friends. In theory, if everyone were to have five close friends, eventually, through mutual friends everyone could easily affect a person on the other side of the world. We can see the trend of the transmission and from it determine that this is not about the virus passing between one or two people per day, but through several people who might unknowingly have become hosts while brushing shoulders with an infected person. Though the scary part is that there doesn’t need to physical contact, and we don’t really quite grasp the dynamics of the transmission.
That is why self-isolation is important. Ironically, through the same mechanism that enable life (cell proliferation, that doubles the number of cells through each division cycle), the number of affected hosts has the potential to double, increasing the risk of those being infected. Official numbers haven’t yet shown a doubling in number of confirmed cases, but those numbers should be trusted with caution. We don’t know for certain how many people don’t have access to testing kits and more importantly, there will be some who will choose not to be tested, regardless if they have the opportunity to and others that may not even know they are infected, mistaking their symptoms for a milder cold or flu.
And would we be able to handle numbers that are ten times what they are now? Would our response be any different? Would be see the future as an opportunity to change the way that we have lived in the last 20 years? Probably not. But there is some glimmer of hope for change. In 2002 a similar epidemic broke out in Asia, caused by the same group of the virus, SARS-CoV, which caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome. The current pandemic is caused by SARS-CoV-2, though this is more commonly referred to by the media solely by the disease it causes: Covid-19. In fact, there has been several attempts to refer to this virus in different ways, with some proposing it to be called HCoV-19, implying that it a type of human coronavirus, and not of within the naturally occurring SARS-CoV strains which are usually solely identified through their genome sequences . However, despite referred to as coronavirus (which refers to a group of related viruses), according to WHO, Covid-19 is best for public communication purposes, as it is irrespective of the country in which this virus initially appeared or the disease that it causes. That being said, this is because of the fear that it may be similar to the SARS epidemic in 2002, particularly among Asian countries, who were most affected by that outbreak.
Nevertheless, the glimmer of hope is that the countries that have been able to control this virus have been those who have in the past been affected by similar strains, which admittedly had higher fatality rates. They have done this through a community response, in which every person within that community knows their responsibility in slowing down the spread, by taking precautions such as wearing face masks, staying at home, avoiding public transport or crowded places, and generally just being more conscious on how viruses spread. When I visited Hong Kong for the first time, and Asia as a matter of fact, it struck me how everything was very clean. Workers cleaning rails with disinfectant, wiping walls near rest areas or seats in shopping centres. Also, the general law of no spitting outside or being stared at if one happened to sneeze or cough without a mask on. Perhaps it is a bit of fear that resonates across every individual who lived through the epidemic. And perhaps that will be something that more of us will remember when this pandemic is over.
So there is hope that it will pass, but it will take its toll, we cannot forget about that. And it will come from those we expect are most at risk, and also from those we don’t expect are at risk. That is the uncertainty of this virus, and of any novel illness. Until the research is done on it, we just won’t know. And we must resort to solely observing as time goes and forming conclusions qualitatively, until we can analyse patients’ data with more accuracy. And this will perhaps change people attitude to personal hygiene in the future. But not only that: healthy eating, the importance of exercise, dismissal of activities such as smoking or excessive drinking. It seems that we have this understanding that the virus does not affect those without underlying health conditions, but that doesn’t quite explain why some that are reported to be generally healthy have perished due to the coronavirus. And this is where an individual’s history plays a role, and past, not only within their lives or through the lives of their ancestors. Coded within our genomes, and manifested in our lives through epigenetic mechanisms.
That’s why there is so much we don’t know about this yet.
- Wu et al. (2020) SARS-CoV-2 is an appropriate name for the new coronavirus. Lancet 395: 949–950.