The outbreak of COVID-19 sparked global anxiety and concern around the world. What are the realities of the pandemic? We investigate.
In December 2019,
From there, the virus spread around the world, leading the
The novel coronavirus — called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) — has been responsible for millions of infections and more than 2 million deaths. The highest number of deaths has occurred in the United States.
As the pandemic persists, scientists continue to make discoveries that may help find ways to treat and prevent infection with the virus.
This article aims to answer some questions that people are asking about the virus and the pandemic.
SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that target and affect mammals’ respiratory systems.
There are four main ranks of coronaviruses: alpha, beta, delta, and gamma. Most of these only affect animals, but some of the
Only two coronaviruses have previously caused global outbreaks.
When humans first contract a coronavirus, it usually results from contact with an infected animal.
Some of the
The SARS coronavirus spread to humans via civet cats, while the MERS virus spread via dromedaries, a type of camel. However, determining which type of animal is transmitting a coronavirus to humans can be difficult.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, initial reports from China tied the outbreak to a seafood market in central Wuhan. As a result, local authorities closed down the market on January 1, 2020.
When MNT contacted the WHO for comment, their spokespeople emphasized:
“We don’t yet know [what the specific source of SARS-CoV-2 was]. Researchers in China are studying this but have not yet identified a source.”
Although it likely originated in animals, SARS-CoV-2 now transmits directly between people.
A person can also transmit the virus before symptoms appear. This asymptomatic period usually lasts for
For this reason, everyone should take steps to prevent transmission, such as:
- washing the hands frequently
- wearing a face-covering in public
- staying at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from others
- avoiding crowded places
The same study showed that the RNA of SARS-CoV-2 is about 79% the same as that of the SARS coronavirus and approximately 50% the same as that of the MERS virus.
Earlier research suggested that pangolins may have been the initial propagators of SARS-CoV-2 among humans, as the virus’s genomic sequence appears to be 99% the same as that of a coronavirus specific to these animals.
More recent research, however, including a study from October 2020, emphasizes that pangolins, bats, and other animals are not to blame for epidemics or pandemics affecting humans.
Instead, the real triggers are societal structures that drive human-animal contact. Blaming wildlife can also lead to unnecessary slaughter and the devastating loss of wildlife biodiversity, the researchers explain.
As with other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 causes symptoms of respiratory disease.
According to the
- a cough
- shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
- a headache
- congestion or a runny nose
- a fever
- muscle pain
- a sore throat
- a new loss of taste or smell
- nausea or vomiting
A study published in The Lancet reports that around
“Current information suggests that the virus can cause mild flu-like symptoms as well as more severe disease. Most [people] seem to have mild disease, and up to 20% appear to progress to more severe disease, including pneumonia, respiratory failure, and in some cases, death,” WHO spokespeople told MNT.
In an official WHO interview in early 2020, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove explained that because the symptoms of COVID-19 can be very generic, it can be difficult to distinguish between them and the symptoms of other respiratory infections.
To understand exactly what a person is dealing with, she said, specialists test viral samples, checking to see whether the virus’s RNA structure matches that of SARS-CoV-2.
The WHO officially classified COVID-19 as a pandemic on
In a declaration, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated:
“[The] WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock, and we are deeply concerned, both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.
We have, therefore, made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.
‘Pandemic’ is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.
Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change [the] WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what [the] WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”
The global implications have been severe. Since March 2020, schools have closed, people have worked from home when possible, and many businesses have closed their doors, some for good.
Countries have closed their international borders and discouraged travel unless it is deemed essential.
In the U.S., the White House set guidelines advising people to physically distance, avoid large gatherings, and practice good hygiene. Some states also have their own measures. Find out about state and local guidance here.
Meanwhile, many questions remain about the nature of SARS-CoV-2 and what the future holds, especially now that
Reported mortality rates vary from country to country. The current COVID-19 case fatality rate in the U.S. appears to be around 1.7%. This number is lower than it was earlier in the pandemic — but that is partly because more people are undergoing tests, even when they have mild or no symptoms.
In response to questions about this, WHO spokespeople told MNT: “This is a new disease, and our understanding is changing rapidly. We will continue to analyze information on both current and any new cases.”
“With MERS, we know that approximately
35%of reported patients with [MERS coronavirus] infection have died. [The] WHO estimated that the case fatality ratio of SARS ranges from 0–50%, depending on the age group affected, with an overall estimate of case fatality of 14–15%.”
Experts no longer consider SARS a risk. The WHO report that since
Read more about sex differences and COVID-19 here.
There have been fewer reported cases of COVID-19 in children than in adults. Children tend to have mild or no symptoms.
However, infants under 1 year old and children with certain medical conditions might have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Some children with COVID-19 have developed a rare but serious condition called
This syndrome is rare. Researchers are still investigating its causes and possible connection with COVID-19.
During pregnancy, people may have an
Read more about pregnancy and COVID-19 here.
A study from the United Kingdom published in May 2020 and currently available online in preprint form, found that Black women and women of marginalized ethnic groups accounted for more than half of the pregnant women hospitalized with COVID-19.
This finding is among a
Read more about racial inequalities in COVID-19 and healthcare here.
Experts believe that SARS-CoV-2 transmits through respiratory droplets. The CDC recommend maintaining a distance of at least
There is currently
People should wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time before preparing or eating food.
People who have symptoms or believe they may have been exposed to the virus can seek a test.
There is currently no cure for COVID-19, but some treatments may help manage symptoms.
Most people do not need hospital care but should rest at home and avoid all contact with others. Symptoms generally improve in about 2 weeks, according to an ongoing survey in the U.K.
People with severe symptoms may need to spend time in a hospital. They may need oxygen therapy and the use of a mechanical respirator.
In the U.S., two drugs have approval specifically for use against COVID-19 in hospitals. Remdesivir (Veklury), is an antiviral drug that may slow the progress of the underlying virus. The other is dexamethasone (Decadron), a corticosteroid that can help manage inflammation.
Over the years, researchers have looked into treatments and vaccines for other coronaviruses, and these may prove useful against the virus that causes COVID-19. A drug that already has approval for other uses is more likely to be safe.
The FDA have a special emergency program to investigate potential COVID-19 treatments. As of January 2021, they have reviewed
Several large international trials are also ongoing in the search for a treatment. The WHO launched the largest of these, which is called
So far, only dexamethasone and remdesivir have approval for use in the U.S., where their respective brand names are Decadron and Veklury.
Other relevant treatments that have approval for emergency use only in the U.S. are:
- bamlanivimab, a
- baricitinib (Olumiant), a Janus kinase inhibitor
Several drugs are currently in phase 3 clinical trials, which are late-stage, large-scale studies. These include:
- tocilizumab (Actemra), an immunosuppressant drug that doctors use to treat arthritis
- bucillamine, another anti-arthritis drug
- apixaban (Eliquis), a blood thinner
- heparin, another blood thinner
Researchers have been racing to find a vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
Two vaccines currently have
A vaccination program started in the U.S. in December 2020. The vaccine itself is free. A person may need to pay an administrative fee, however. This will be reimbursed by insurance companies or the Department of Health and Human Services.
Other vaccines are under development, and some others already have approval for use in other countries.
For more information about the ongoing pandemic and for detailed guidelines, here are a few international resources:
The WHO information hub The CDC information hub
- The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control information hub
The Australian Government Department of Health resources collection The BMJ‘s latest news hub The Lancet‘s resource center Nature‘s article collection
MNT will continue to report on developments, ensuring that our readers are well-supplied with accurate, up-to-date information.
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