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THOMPSON: COVID-19 is a virus, not a socially or politically conscious enemy

July 06, 2020 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Like almost anything new, fact and fiction can become interwoven. So it is with the current pandemic.

No one was the wiser just six months ago, but as scientists worldwide learn more and release findings with each passing day...and people pass along information and misinformation in conversation and on social media...we are left with a crazy-quilt narrative about SARS-CoV-2.

Folks who are smart and not so smart proselytize on Facebook...repeating facts and fiction with the speed of, well, a virus. So this column has some points about the pandemic that maybe you know...and maybe not. But they are factual...sourced from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, Harvard Medical School and the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).

Last week - in an admittedly less-than-scientific survey - I asked a dozen fellow grocery shoppers to identify the pandemic virus by name? One person answered COVID-19...but didn’t know what the combination of letters and numbers meant.

None offered its official scientific name...SARS-CoV-2, which stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. SARS-CoV-2 is genetically linked to SARS-CoV, another member of the coronavirus family of viruses that was last seen in 2004 in China.

I always want my column to enlighten rather than add to the confusion...so let’s start with what we know. You’ll hear and read the virus is more commonly called COVID-19, which simply takes the first letter or two of COronaVIrus Disease...and adds 19 as a reference to the year discovered...2019.

COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 is a virus...not a socially or politically conscious enemy that strategizes to invade our bodies and do us harm. It is mindless. It is soulless. It doesn’t attack us. It’s not a monster that we battle. It’s a virus.

It can do virtually nothing on its own. It can’t even live unless it finds hosts...and those are individual cells in each of us. It acts like a minuscule, maintenance-free photocopier...one whose efficiency the folks at Xerox, Canon and Ricoh might love to model.

In just six months, this microscopic copier of a virus has us reeling...it’s gone worldwide. Realistic numbers are hard to come by because relatively little testing has been done...but the World Health Organization confirms more than ten million infected people...and more than 500,000 deaths.

The greatest number of infections and deaths - about one-fourth - are in the United States. Besides a staggering health toll, more Americans are out of work - just north of 40 million - than their are Canadians.

A lot of places haven’t experienced much of the first wave of this pandemic...and yet New York, China and Korea are bracing for a second wave. In the U.S. the first wave appears to have plateaued...and no one knows when it will get better...or worse.

Doctors and researchers are generally conservative and don’t like predictions...but they are cautioning us not to be too optimistic...it appears it’s going to be a nasty roller coaster of a ride this year and next.

It helps to understand the nature of viruses.  The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses - yes, it’s a real thing - governed by the Virology Division of the International Union of Microbiological Societies...a larger real thing...knows viruses. The members of ICTV are meeting in August - virtually one hopes - to name nearly 1,000 known viruses...that will bring the total number of known and named species of viruses to 6,828.

To give you an idea of how scratching-the-surface the virus count is...there are more than 380,000 named species of beetles...250,000 named species of plants. But those numbers are nothing compared to viruses.

Hundreds of thousands of known viruses are yet to be named. Like a universe of star-filled galaxies, the domain of viruses - called a virosphere by members of ICTV - contains at the very least hundreds of millions...and more likely...trillions of viruses.

Earlier this year, Chinese researchers found the current pandemic was caused by a virus with a tell-tale crown of proteins, a definite member of the coronavirus family...which includes 39 species.

No one knows how viruses came about. Did they start as microbes that through natural selection became parasites? Were they some genetic code in microbes that found an escape route and infected other cells? The truth is we don’t know the answer to this which-came-first-chicken-or-egg riddle.

We do know that the current pandemic virus is larger than many viruses...more than twice the size of the average flu virus. But everything is relative...it’s still only one ten-thousandth of a millimetre. A human hair is a thousand times thicker. If a single lung cell in your body was the size of a Ford Pickup...the virus would be smaller than a parking ticket under the windshield wiper.

Among all the coronaviruses, only - SARS-CoV2 and MERS-CoV, are deadly. Four others cause about one-third of common colds. Although not common, coronaviruses can cross species...from animal to humans.

In the last two major coronavirus outbreaks that were transmitted to humans, it occurred through intermediate hosts...the masked palm civet (SARS) and dromedary camels (MERS). Theoretically, cats, dogs, chickens and bats are among the many animals that could infect humans with a coronavirus.

One of the perplexing things medically about SARS-CoV-2 is how it presents itself in humans. In the lungs it affects the alveoli...the little air sacks that gather oxygen for our bodies. It inflames them and can make respiration impossible...requiring a ventilator. You can get pneumonia...and die not directly from the virus but from the complication of pneumonia.

Other organs are not immune. The virus can damage the heart and blood vessel linings...and generate clots that can cause stroke, seizures and brain swelling. In rarer instances your own immune system can even turn against you rather than countering the virus...and cause severe health issues. You can even have the virus and not suffer symptoms...nearly 35 percent are asymptomatic...and even spread it to others who might have symptoms...or not.

You hear people say COVID-19 “doesn’t discriminate”...but it does. Factors such as race, social class, underlying health issues health and geography - among others - make some people more vulnerable.

Sometimes facts can actually mislead...not intentionally...but because we make assumptions... about cause and effect, for example. More men are dying than women from this pandemic...in some nations at a rate of more than two to one. But that doesn’t mean the death rate is biological...gender based...it could be unrelated

Scientific research is trying to determine whether greater male vulnerability is caused by pre-existing health conditions, immunological or hormonal factors...or combinations. The truths are...we know more men are dying...and we don’t yet know why.

We do know this virus is changing our lives...invisible to the naked eye...it has halted gatherings, grounded jets and stalled the economy. It has kicked off a domino effect chain of events - mostly bad - that affects all of us. When large parts of the world were under stay-at-home orders...the environment...our air and water qualities actually improved...a silver lining?

We are likely somewhere between six months and a year away from a vaccine for this virus...and it might very well seem longer regardless of when it comes. There’s already a group of anti vaccine folks forming in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere...and it remains to be seen whether people will face death before taking a vaccine that works.

Regardless, talented and courageous people are working on this pandemic...not only a cure...but gathering more information about how it spreads, why some get sick and others don’t. They come from a variety of disciplines...but they all - directly and indirectly - involve science.

As we all wrestle with how this pandemic affects us, one simple thing all of us can do is rely on verifiable facts to guide our actions. And, we should understand that we are far from knowing everything we need to know about SARS-CoV-2.


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