Researchers have worked at breakneck speed for the past 6 months to understand COVID-19 and the virus that causes it
Termed as ‘mysterious pneumonia’ upon its discovery in Dec. 2019, the virus has blown up into a pandemic infecting almost 13.2 million and taking the lives of 575,000 others at the time of writing. It wasn’t long after that the scientists realized the new disease was a type of coronavirus related to SARS, thus dubbing it as SARS-CoV-2. It was later renamed as COVID-19 by the World Health Organization.
The pandemic has precipitated the biggest health crisis in a century, where scientists, doctors, and other scholars have been working tirelessly to understand the new disease in better preparing for a cure and/or containment.
Despite the best efforts, our knowledge about the virus is still scant. We do know how the virus enters the human body, how it attacks the cells & replicates and how the immune system neutralizes it in most of the cases while others get killed by it eventually. Some potential drugs have been identified which benefit the ones most in need, while accelerated efforts are in place to have a possible vaccine by the end of the year.
One of the biggest studies of its kind in England recently — conducted on more than 17 million people, it revealed some interesting facts, some of whom we knew already. But for every question that gets answered, we have still others that have emerged, and some of them have lingered ever since.
What Do We Know?
Most researchers agree that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus probably originated in bats, specifically horseshoe bats. A comprehensive analysis of more than 1,200 coronaviruses sampled from bats in China also points to horseshoe bats in Yunnan as the probable origin of the new coronavirus.
For the research mentioned above, researchers used pseudonyms for 17,278,392 adults, of whom 10,926 were dying from COVID-19 or related complications. The gathered data was then plugged into a health analytics platform they have built, called OpenSAFELY. Here’s what they found from the study in addition to what we know already.
- People older than 80 were hundreds of times more likely to die than people under 40, and more than 90% of deaths in England were in people over 60. This factor which was also evident in the earlier Chinese study seems to be a global phenomenon.
- Men were more likely to die than women of the same age — accounting for 60% of all deaths.
- Patients with underlying medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, severe asthma, and cardiovascular disease were at higher risk.
- Also, the study concluded that people with lower incomes were more susceptible to the disease — due to a lack of affordability of proper medical care than anything else.
- The most important conclusion was that Black and South Asian people, as well as those from other ethnic minority groups, were more likely to die than white patients. Similar data in the US showed that Black and Latino people are almost twice as likely to die as white people.
- On the treatment front, Gilead Science’s antiviral drug remdesivir has proven effective in shortening the amount of time that patients may need to spend in the hospital, without having any statistically significant effect on deaths.
- In another breakthrough move, Dexamethasone — a cheap anti-inflammatory steroid available over the counter, has shown to be lifesaving for critical coronavirus patients in initial clinical trials conducted in the U.K. The Oxford researchers reporting this are also on track to come up with effective vaccine by the end of the year.
- China, in the meanwhile, has approved a vaccine for Military use — dubbed as ‘Ad5-nCoV’, it is developed by CanSino Biologics, and is one of the eight Chinese vaccines approved for human trials in the country.
- On the prevention front, the use of face coverings or masks is increasingly becoming essential in slowing the spread of the virus. Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 might be much more infectious with its airborne droplets which can last for up to 6 hours. In this scenario, use of face masks becomes even more important.
What We Don’t Know
- The biggest question perhaps emanating from the COVID-19 infection is how some people are asymptomatic (not showing any visible symptoms), with the majority experiencing mild symptoms, while it proves fatal for others. Researchers are looking at possible human gene variants that might explain some of these differences.
- Immunologists are desperate to find the answer to the kind of immunity a recovered patient holds against the virus. This is important for the development of a possible vaccine eventually and managing the disease in the long term. Although SARS immunity lasted a couple of years to which this novel coronavirus is related, a newer study published in a preprint paper in medRxiv, suggests the immunity might not last beyond a few months — as in the case of seasonal Flu.
- All viruses mutate, some more so than others. Molecular epidemiologists have used these mutations to trace the global spread of the current virus. Besides letting you know if the new strains are more or less virulent or transmissible, this knowledge also gives us an idea of the effectiveness of a vaccine eventually. A highly mutating virus has the ability to trick the antibodies and T cells so that they can’t recognize the pathogen. In a recent preprint study, Researcher have identified 14 different mutations of COVID-19.
- Currently, there about 200 vaccines in development worldwide, with around 20 in clinical trials. Vaccines basically prompt our immune system to produce antibodies, which block the virus from entering the cells & also neutralize the invading pathogen. However, we don’t know the levels of these antibodies that are high enough to stop new infections, or how long these molecules persist in the body.
It is going to be a long hard battle for all us, but with government and industry pumping billions into vaccine development, testing and manufacturing, a vaccine could be available in record time. For now, though, a little common sense prevention is the best tool we have against this pandemic — wash your hands regularly, follow physical distancing guidelines & wear a mask. Stay Safe everyone!
Originally Published on Medium