As the coronavirus pandemic comes to dominate our lives, there are lots of stories and quack “cures” circulating online and causing an infodemic of misinformation.
But the way to beat this virus is to use the medical knowledge and understanding of epidemics which goes back to the days of medieval plagues.
The common term “coronavirus” is actually the name for a family of viruses, including those which caused the previous epidemics of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2004.
As it also causes severe respiratory infection, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called the current virus SARS-CoV-2, with the illness it causes named Covid-19.
This is a new virus, to which no one has any immunity, so we need to understand and disrupt its spread.
Initially, many dismissed Covid-19 as similar to any winter “flu” but, as our knowledge has grown, the differences have become stark.
The WHO study of the first 44,000 cases in China showed that 80% of those infected will have a self-limiting condition which, while pretty miserable, will not be life threatening.
However, 20% of Covid-19 cases could become seriously ill and need hospitalisation, while some will require critical care and ventilation.
This is approximately ten times the level seen in an Influenza A outbreak and
is the reason healthcare services could become overwhelmed.
Similarly, the proportion of people at risk of dying from Covid-19 appears to be about 1-2%, as opposed to 0.1% for Influenza A.
This figure could become even higher if healthcare systems can’t keep up due to a surge in cases. We, therefore, must reduce the number of people ill with Covid-19 at any one time so the NHS has the resources to treat everyone who needs it.
This is known as “flattening the curve”, as shown by the many graphics in the media.
Every one of us has a responsibility to reduce our risk of catching the virus.
We may become sick ourselves, putting more pressure on the NHS, or pass it
to someone who becomes seriously ill. This could be due to their age, which
weakens the immune defences, or an underlying condition that makes them
SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus which enters the body, multiplies in the lining of the lungs and can be spread into the air through coughing or sneezing.
This can infect someone nearby, if they breathe in the virus particles, or get onto people hands from contaminated surfaces and enter their respiratory tract, predominantly through the nose and mouth if they touch their face.
Good hygiene is therefore critical and the actions people need to take are
pretty simple and well proven, both in the case of Covid-19 and in many
- Using a paper tissue to catch coughs or sneezes, to prevent droplets
spreading into the air, and disposing of hankies in the bin. I’m sure your
Grandma used to tell you this all the time!
- Frequent hand washing with soap and water, which is as good, if not
better than, sanitiser, in case it has been picked up from infected surfaces.
- Not shaking hands, as there is little point in washing carefully and then
shaking hands with others with no idea how thorough they have been.
- Not touching your face, which allows the virus enter via your nose or mouth.
This is a common habit and a hard one to break.
- Stopping smoking or cutting down on cigarettes, as smoking reduces the
lungs’ immune defences: this is challenging when stuck at home.
- Lastly, and importantly, is “social distancing”, which is about keeping away
from those who might have Covid-19, even if they don’t have symptoms yet.
The key is to reduce the risk of inhaling viral droplets they have coughed into
the air or picking it up from surfaces they have touched.
As this demands really significant changes to our way of life, it is the hardest action to take. While many have been following the advice to work from home where possible, and avoid crowding together in pubs and clubs, others have remained complacent thinking this is all overblown as they don’t know anyone who is affected.
The reason for that is that the virus spreads “exponentially” which means the
number of people affected is actually accelerating every day, as shown by the
steepening of the curve tracking the number of diagnosed cases and also,
sadly, those who have lost their lives.
The result is that cases double every few days but, for a long time, the numbers are still very low and people remain complacent; then, suddenly, it appears to be everywhere!
The problem is that once the numbers get big enough for people to notice, it is
already spreading very quickly and is hard to contain and treat.
This is why, no matter how drastic the measures feel, it is only by closing the
places where people socialise that we can reduce the risk of having a
For younger people, who think they will just have a bit of a “flu”, there have been serious cases documented in younger adults but, crucially, they could pass the virus to older parents or grandparents and make them very seriously ill.
The last pandemic on this scale was the 1918/19 Influenza outbreak and the
lessons from closing down cities are there for all to see.
St Louis, which cancelled all gatherings, had just over a tenth of the deaths seen in
Philadelphia, which allowed a large public parade to go ahead.
Obviously closing down leisure businesses has a huge impact on the economy and on
the resilience of families who struggle financially at the best of times.
While more needs to be done for the self-employed, the financial support offered by
the UK and devolved Governments should help small businesses keep their
workforce, improve access to social security payments and help families keep
food on the table and a roof over their heads during the crisis.
In the four months since the first reports from Wuhan, Covid-19 has spread
incredibly quickly across our interconnected world of airline travel.
But that same interconnection has led to research being shared openly on the internet
as the whole world pulls together in this critical fight.
While it took years to identify the virus causing HIV, SARS-CoV-2 was identified in just over a month: followed swiftly by a test.
Currently, research teams all over the world are working together to develop improved tests, identify anti-viral drugs that can treat Covid-19 and create a vaccine to provide immunity in the future.
Covid-19 is the biggest public health challenge we have faced in any of our lifetimes and, until such time as there is a treatment or a vaccine, the only way of getting through this crisis is if everyone plays their part in “breaking the chain” of spread and slowing the disease.