The global COVID-19 outbreak is dominating headlines and causing serious disruptions in daily life. Not surprisingly, like most healthcare providers, we are getting a lot of questions about the virus – and about viruses in general. Since the topic is on most everyone’s mind, here are some answers, based on current science and accepted guidelines.
If coronavirus causes the common cold, how is it all of a sudden a global pandemic doing such serious damage?
It’s a different and more dangerous strain, to which we have no immunity. Coronaviruses are part of a family of pathogens, known since the 1960s. They cause all kinds of mischief. Most commonly, colds, mild respiratory illness and flu. But on occasion, a much more dangerous version emerges, like those that cause SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome, MERS – Middle East respiratory syndrome and the illness that has many of us sheltering at home, COVID-19.
When it first appeared in China in late 2019, public health professionals quickly discovered it was caused by a coronavirus, but it was a new one on the scene and had no name. By the time it was named, the generic name had stuck. And it’s official name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue – SARS-CoV-2.
What is a virus, exactly?
Think of it as a sub-microscopic pirate, a molecular parasite, a cellular smart bomb. I tend to consider them a life form, but that’s a point of debate in science and medicine. Some say they’re not alive, some say they’re barely so.
A virus is basically a tiny packet of genetic material – DNA and RNA. It has a single mission, to make more viruses. But it can’t do that on its own. It’s not a cell, so it can’t replicate itself by dividing. Instead, it latches onto a healthy cell and injects its genetic malware. That reprograms the cell, to assemble and churn out more viruses. More viruses infect more cells as the cycle continues. That process can severely ramp up the body’s immune response and cause fever, respiratory distress and all the other signs and symptoms.
Why do we need viruses, anyway?
There’s a good chance viruses shape life itself. As a mechanism for transfer of genetic information from one organism to another, they have likely increased genetic diversity, making life as we know it more robust. The natural world is hypercompetitive, every living thing battling it out for food, water, oxygen and survival against a never-ending barrage of disease and environmental hazards. Organisms that survive the onslaught succeed and thrive. We may not need viruses, but they’re here. Every species has to deal with them – even bacteria routinely come under attack. That makes the whole system stronger.
Can’t we kill it with antibiotics?
Most antibiotic drugs are designed to work against bacteria. That’s a completely different creature – a fully functional, self-contained, living cell with the structure and functions that form the building blocks of all life. Even though millions of different kinds of bacteria exist, many share common characteristics, which antibiotic drugs target. Viruses have no such anatomy – they’re just envelopes of organic molecules. And they change quickly to adapt to new environments, one reason I think of them as primitive life forms. They’re a real moving target for drug therapy.
Why is there no vaccine?
Time is the key. The virus that causes COVID-19 is novel, meaning it’s brand new. It’s been known only since late 2019. Developing and producing vaccines takes longer. We may see a vaccine – but science needs time to determine if the virus will stay in its current form – it could evolve into something less malicious – and if a vaccine is even feasible. Every virus behaves differently and not all respond to immunization. HIV, for example, the virus that causes AIDS, is still not a candidate, even though it has been known and studied for decades.
Will it just go away, once the weather warms up?
We don’t know yet. We’ve seen outbreaks in Australia and parts of South America during their summer and early fall, when it’s hot. It remains to be seen.
If you’ve survived COVID-19, you’re protected from getting it again, right?
Again, not enough data. We have reports of people in South Korea who tested positive in the past having symptoms again. But the data is fuzzy – some of that could be explained by false positives in initial testing. We do know it’s a very strange disease – it can kill young, healthy people with no underlying medical problems. And older people with multiple complications – even those fighting cancer – can survive. So, there’s a chance post-infection immunity will also vary in the population, but it’s just too early to tell. Hopefully we’ll have a better handle on it once we get testing nailed down.
Why is wide testing taking so long?
All the regulatory protocols are designed for safety – so it can take years to meet the very high standards needed to approve a new test for humans. That’s the biggest hurdle, under normal circumstances. But the federal government, manufacturers and laboratory providers are pushing to develop testing more quickly under emergency regulations that exist just for situations like COVID-19. Considering the U.S. population is nearly 330 billion, making enough tests is a massive undertaking of supply and infrastructure that takes time to build.
What can I do to boost my immunity?
There’s no magic bullet against any particular disease. But, we know keeping healthy habits can keep your immune system in good health, too. After all, most of us have more control over what we eat and do, now that social distancing rules are in place. We’re doing more meal prep – avoiding rush decisions for fast food and other unhealthy choices. And many of us have more time for exercise. You don’t have to do an Iron Man routine, but you should definitely keep moving and stretching. Eating well, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and doing moderate exercise are always good ideas – now more than ever.
Should I be taking vitamins?
A multivitamin can help fill in some gaps in nutrition. Keep in mind, they deliver the whole day’s needs in a single dose, so absorption is never 100 percent. For most people, a multi does little harm and could have moderate benefits. Beyond that, zinc and vitamin C are getting a lot of attention, but everyone’s needs, risks and potential complications are unique. You should talk to your healthcare provider before starting on any supplements beyond a multivitamin.
What else should I be doing?
What we’ve all been doing. Limit exposure to others, maintain social distance, wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your face and cover your mouth and nose when you venture out. We have mounted these complex behaviors against an exceedingly simple enemy. Outsmarting a virus is no small task, but together we will make progress.