More Thoughts on the New Coronavirus

An infographic adapted from one produced by the CDC (click for larger version)

A few readers have sent me questions regarding the coronavirus that is spreading across the world, so I thought I would make a post answering those questions and providing some resources you can use to deal with the issue. Please note, however, that I am neither a medical doctor nor a biologist. As a result, I don’t claim any expertise on the matter. However, there are some misconceptions about the virus that are easily cleared up, and there are some facts that anyone who can understand the scientific literature should share.

First, a few facts. The term “coronavirus” refers to a very large group of viruses that circulate mostly among mammals and birds. However, some are able to infect people. Most coronaviruses that infect people produce mild illnesses, but some (like this one) produce potentially fatal ones. The coronavirus that is in the news right now is one that has not been seen before. This is not unusual. When an animal is infected with two different versions of the coronavirus, they can mix together, producing a new (usually called “novel”) coronavirus. This particular novel coronavirus has been charmingly named SARS-CoV-2, and it causes the disease referred to as COVID-19. Because of that, it is sometimes referred to as the “COVID-19 virus.”

The reason it has been given the name SARS-CoV-2 is that its genetic sequences indicate it is very similar to the virus that caused the SARS outbreak of 2003. Based on that sequence, it is thought that the virus originated in bats, but it might have passed through another animal (possibly a scaly anteater) before infecting people. Most importantly, there is strong evidence against the idea that it was genetically engineered. This is because the way it infects people is quite different from what would have been predicted given our current knowledge about these viruses. In other words, it is very hard to believe that anyone knowledgable enough to engineer a virus would purposefully make the genetic sequences that end up allowing the virus to be so good at infecting people.

The illness caused by this virus is flu-like, but it is much more serious than the flu. The death rate caused by the flu changes from year-to-year, depending on the strains that circulate. However, on average, the flu has a death rate of about 0.1%. That means for every 1,000 people who get the flu, 1 will die. Even though that is a low death rate, a lot of people get the flu. As a result, millions of people die from the flu every year. We don’t know the death rate for this new virus, since we don’t really know how many people have actually been infected, but the best estimate so far is that the death rate is about 2%. That means this virus is thought to be 20 times more deadly than the flu virus.

Second, the resources. The infographic above has been adapted from one that was produced by the CDC. The university at which I teach has asked all its professors to post this electronically as well as wherever students might be found. It is basic, but nevertheless, it does contain some helpful information. This link will take you to the latest information regarding where the virus has been detected, how many people have been infected, and how many people have died.

In general, the best way to avoid being infected by this virus is to avoid other people and avoid going to places where it has been found. The virus spreads most effectively when an infected person is within a few feet of an uninfected person. However, it might also be transferred by surfaces. If someone sneezes on a surface and someone else touches that surface, the virus can be transferred to the hand. Then, if that person touches his or her mouth, nose, or eyes, it is possible for the virus to begin an infection. Thus, you need to wash your hands a lot and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth in between washings.

The most important thing to remember is that while the illness caused by this virus has a death rate that is thought to be about 2% on average, it is significantly higher for elderly people, people who are already sick with something else, and people with weakened immune systems. Thus, if you show any of the signs of the illness (fever, cough, shortness of breath) and think you might have been in contact with someone who has the virus, you should seek medical help.

While there are several groups working on a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus, the earliest a vaccine could possibly be ready would be at least a year from now. My guess, given that I am anything but an expert about these things, is that it will not be needed. The disease seems to have already plateaued in China, and I expect other countries to be a bit better at reducing the spread. Thus, I expect that the spread of the disease will slow down significantly before a vaccine can be approved for use. I could easily be wrong about that, however.

7 Comments

  1. George Ebejer says:

    Thank you very much. You have been a great help.

  2. John D says:

    There a comment on the paper you linked that I found interesting. He seems to be saying bats aren’t to blame and, although the virus could almost be interpreted to have been engineered, that at closer inspection it definitely couldn’t have been.

    ” I concur with this analysis at the amino acid level. I would add, however, that even if two virus isolates have an IDENTICAL amino acid sequence, that would not automatically make one the origin of the other. In my post 10 days ago, Tackling Rumors of a Suspicious Origin of nCoV2019 ( http://virological.org/t/tackling-rumors-of-a-suspicious-origin-of-ncov2019/384 ), I showed that mutations in the 3rd wobble base in an otherwise conserved region accumulate as to make seemingly identical viruses very much separated in time – indeed over decades.

    It is time to leave playing “who’s ur daddy” to daytime television. No known viral RNA sequence is the daddy of SARS-CoV-2. No match. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. It is all bat guano. Whatever analogy you like. A thrust of distrust and recrimination is not the path to protecting the planet from a viral catastrophe.

    Bill Gallaher”

    Emeritus Professor
    Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Parasitology

    Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics,
    Harvard University

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Interesting. I did not read the comments.

  3. S Barkhouse says:

    What do you think of this doctor’s suggestion?
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=p_AyuhbnPOI&feature=youtu.be

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I think he is ignoring a few things. For example, he claims we have to ask whether or not this is new. We know the answer to that already. It is new. The geneome sequence tells us it’s new. It tells us how the virus binds to human cells: in a unique way that most virologists wouldn’t have thought possible. We also know that it is very contagious and that it lasts longer outside a host than most coronaviruses. The most important thing, however, is that we have no way to protect the population from it, and while there are some promising possibilities, we still have no accepted way to treat it. These are all new things that make the virus new and very dangerous.

  4. Kenyatta says:

    I feel like we are living in dangerous times. I’m not saying that Covid-19 was modified in a lab, but scientists do have the resources. I’ve read how sometimes deadly mistakes occur. Like equipment failure, meaning decontamination had failed, deadly pathogens left unintended and unmarked. What are your thoughts on such experiments?

    forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2019/03/04/scientists-restart-research-on-creating-deadly-bird-flu-with-nihs-blessing/amp/

    1. Jay Wile says:

      As I say in the article, all evidence indicates the virus was not engineered. I am not in favor of experiments like those described in the Forbes article you linked. I agree with the author of the article that those kinds of experiments are dangerous.

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