A scientific perspective on the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak – plus public health tips

By Ben Alonzo
coronavirus

The recent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak presents an interesting case study for disease transmission and public preparedness. COVID-19 and seasonal flu are not the same. Although seasonal flu kills at least 18,000 annually in the US, compared to COVID-19, even a small percentage of deaths in such a large population is concerning because the mortality rate with COVID-19 is higher. We’re also learning it causes more severe illness among the elderly and is rapidly spreading. Misinformation is also rampant regarding COVID-19, including false information about origins and even a claim by a popular talk show host that it was weaponized for political purposes. Thousands of accounts were engaging in price gouging on eBay, selling dirty/used masks under the false claim that they were certified to prevent COVID-19. It’s important for the general public to get their health information from reputable expert sources. Science literacy and prevention are key to mitigating public health risks such as international disease transmission.

Coronavirus

A coronavirus is a rather common cause of colds and infections. The word “corona” means crown-like and refers to the spiky projections on the virus surface. They are called zoonoses because they infect certain animals and can spread to other animals. If certain mutations occur, the virus can spread to humans. Scientifically, this novel virus has a name, which is “SARS-CoV-2.” This specific virus leads to a disease called “coronavirus disease 2019” or COVID-19.

Early thoughts are that the recent Chinese-Wuhan outbreak may have involved humans in contact with a seafood and animal market in Wuhan, China. What makes this virus a little different than previous severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is that COVID-19 seems to spread faster and causes more severe illness. At the same time, since only a small percentage develop severe illness from this virus, it also means there’s a lot of people running around with hard-to-detect symptoms.

*We have updated this section with new information from gathering the latest data.

The COVID-19 outbreak is unique and not just a seasonal flu. Critical infection rates (such as needing intensive medical care) are higher for COVID-19 than seasonal flu. Pre-symptomatic transmission (common for flu) is not a major driver of transmission for COVID-19. So far, children 0-19 have been low risk. In contrast, children were huge drivers of seasonal flu transmission. Each week, we are learning more about the differences between seasonal flu and this unique COVID-19 outbreak. The mortality rate is higher for COVID-19 and this is one of the biggest reasons to be concerned. Older people (above 50 years of age) and with pre-existing conditions are at very high risk of severe illness by becoming infected with a case of COVID-19, according to the WHO.

Be careful – there’s lots of ignorant people spreading misinformation about the coronavirus online, including conspiracy theorist bloggers and talk show hosts. As Dr. Shmerling, MD (Harvard Health) states, “concern about the virus is well-deserved”, and there’s lots of reliable info online, but “there’s a lot of misinformation” and “the trick is to figure out which is which.”

The US numbers are rapidly changing, but as of January 21, 2020, there were 43 confirmed cases with 17 hospitalized and 2 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least 10 states are reporting cases. Recent estimates indicate there may be hundreds of US cases as of March 1, 2020.

Globally, as of March 1, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting 88,948 cases, with 8,774 of those cases outside of China. Estimates are that there have been 2,915 (approximate) deaths, globally.

Science is our best way to protect and eradicate diseases. Just how important is public health education? Take a look at this epidemiological graph of COVID-19.

covid-19-graph
Epidemic curve of confirmed COVID-19 cases through March 1, 2020. Source: WHO data.

Pay close attention to how fast the outbreak occurs, spreading all over the world. This is why science literacy is critical to our survival and a higher quality of life. Thankfully, scientists all over the world are working on containing the outbreak. Science is global, everyone is impacted by even the slightest of events.

Experts say that bad actors online are spreading misinformation about the virus, including a hoax stating the government made a vaccine before the virus to profit off of it, that the virus was man-made in a laboratory as a weapon for war, that people are selling fake immune boosters (no such thing), and unscientific diet recommendations.

covid-compare
Comparing coronavirus to the flu.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 is only one of many public health threats. To put this in perspective, there have been at least 32 million cases of the flu this year and at least 18,000 flu-related deaths. At the current time, this is much higher than COVID-19 numbers. Many public health threats go ignored by the general public and government, unfortunately. Other examples of public health epidemics include obesity and diabetes. Prevention is key.

Comparisons are tough to make when people don’t understand the science behind it or overall context. Despite very high seasonal flu deaths, COVID-19 is not the same as seasonal flu. COVID-19 has the potential to result in a much higher death rate than seasonal flu. In addition, it seems to spread differently and it causes more severe illness than seasonal flu. Plus, to date, unlike seasonal flu, there is no vaccine. The mortality rate is higher for COVID-19 than seasonal flu. It’s not so straightforward when trying to make comparisons between causes of death, but one thing is obvious – we have neglected to pay attention to public health needs and science literacy.

Symptoms

It’s interesting to note that some people have been reported to have the virus but not experience any symptoms. But the main symptoms of coronavirus include coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. Other non-respiratory symptoms involve nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

covid19-symptoms

Most people recover within a few days. However, at-risk populations, such as people with pre-existing conditions and the elderly are at higher risk of more severe complications and death.

Treatment

Scientists are working on the antivirus but there is no current cure for the coronavirus. Instead, healthcare professionals treat it by supporting sick patients, such as aggressive therapy for the sickest patients.

Spreading

Although all of the details are not known regarding the spread of coronavirus, it’s believed that coughing and sneezing leads to transmission from one person to another. It’s also possible fecal material can spread this novel coronavirus. Being in close contact with another infected person raises your risk. Healthcare workers that are around respiratory illness cases are at particularly high risk for acquiring and spreading this virus.

Disease Prevention

It’s important that people get their health information from credible expert sources. This is an evolving situation and real-time, accurate information is important for both scientists and the public. There are multiple, basic hygiene things people can do to reduce the risk of disease transmission when it comes to the coronavirus.

First, wash your hands regularly with soap for at least 15 seconds. Second, always cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough with your inner elbow or a tissue. Third, and finally, stay home from work, school, or public areas if you’re sick, particularly if you show signs of a respiratory infection. Experts recommend self-quarantine for at least 14 days if you’re sick. Be considerate of others and just stay home.

Interestingly enough, missing work is also tough to do if you cannot afford to miss work. Getting sick is also financially damaging to the under or uninsured as well – two interesting problems scientists continue to warn politicians about, ironically.

Misinformation & Price Gouging

Numerous, and totally ridiculous, conspiracy theories are being posted on social media and blogs. There have been some conservative talk show hosts also suggesting the coronavirus is weaponized to hurt the Trump administration’s legacy, most recently from Rush Limbaugh. These claims are ignorant and completely without merit or evidence, according to the science community.

Some of the misinformation that is being spread by various bad actors could cause harm or death, which is why experts say the general public should be getting information from reputable expert source, such as the CDC coronavirus website.

In times of emergencies, bad actors and unethical businesses may also engage in price gouging. This week, both Amazon and eBay were full of new accounts selling used/opened N95 masks and counterfeits at astonishing prices to take advantage of the fear among the public. Manufacturers of protective masks (protect you from breathing in certain particles) were reporting overwhelming demand, many out of stock or limiting purchase orders.

dirty-n95-mask

ULTRATechLife has reported hundreds of Amazon and eBay users for account violations and illegal sales including numerous masks that were not sealed being sold as new. In addition, false advertising practices are going on with people falsely claiming their masks were CDC approved or prevent coronavirus.

In some good news, CNN reports that Amazon recently deleted over 1 million accounts for price gouging on corona virus products.

The general public should not bother buying opened or unapproved masks. For the time being, a more efficient thing to do would be to stay home and avoid heavily populated public areas, instead of buying masks.

Outbreaks such as this test the science literacy of the public and governments. It’s also a test of public health infrastructure. It’s very interesting to look at the clinical data, which is where scientists look to see the who, what, where, when, and why. It’s hard work that ultimately saves lives.

Clinical Data

So far, after reviewing clinical data (which is very limited), most of the problems are associated with pneumonia. The incubation period is around 5 days, including some data suggesting that this window can be anywhere from 2-14 days. Fever (83–98%), cough (46%–82%), fatigue (11–44%), and shortness of breath (31%) are the most commonly reported signs and symptoms during illness onset. Other rare symptoms included gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea.

Abnormal lab tests are common, including admissions for leukopenia (9–25%), leukocytosis (24–30%), lymphopenia (63%), and elevated alanine aminotransferase and aspartate aminotransferase levels (37%). [2,4] Most patients had normal serum levels of procalcitonin on admission. Chest CT images have shown bilateral involvement in most patients. Multiple areas of consolidation and ground glass opacities are typical findings reported to date.

A real-time RT PCR assay is available to test for Novel Coronavirus-2019. Respiratory specimens are taken from the patient in the form of nasopharyngeal or oropharyngeal aspirates, swabs, broncheoalveolar lavage, or sputum.

The elderly are at highest risk, especially those with pre-existing comorbidities.

Clinical management is a matter of treating the complications with therapy. A few drugs are being tested without FDA approval, but no data is available on their effectiveness with this virus.

A new discussion (2020) of the research for this coronavirus is discussed in the Lancet medical journal.

As always, healthcare professionals should use proper body substance isolation and elevated airborne precaution equipment when handling virus test equipment and coming into contact with patients.

What Next?

A public health emergency has been declared for COVID-19. Public health experts say the risk is high for communities in the United States. At the time, the disease is not currently spreading widely in the United States. Unfortunately, risk assessments point to this virus as causing a global pandemic. This is because of widely varying health systems and diverse populations.

Health experts expect rising numbers of coronavirus cases, and unfortunately more deaths among the most vulnerable. Expect more states to also declare disasters as a standard protocol to deal with public health emergencies. The general public should not panic though. However, this should remind everyone how important science and healthcare are for all to embrace as a human right. Lives depend on it.

Much effort will focus on who is spreading the disease. It’s probably a good idea, especially for the more vulnerable (elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions) to avoid heavily populated places, such as stadiums, airports, and department stores. It’s very difficult to track sources, especially in a mobile world where someone can travel anywhere on Earth in a matter of hours.

Initially, a source transmits the virus. Once this happens, human-to-human spread occurs. Then, community spreading can occur. One of the problems with disease surveillance is a matter of tracking the entry and transmission points. In some cases, there will be people that have no idea how or where they were exposed. For example, there are already some people with the virus that have not recently traveled to China. This means that the transmission mode may have shifted to another time and route. This is why ongoing scientific work is critical in the interest of public safety.

Suspected infected persons, particularly those coming in from China, may be subject to a safety quarantine for up to 14 days. This may change over the next couple of weeks.

It’s important that people get their public health information from credible sources. It’s also important that we not overreact to the coronavirus situation. Overreaction may cause significant economic consequences. Interestingly enough, drug manufacturing, goods, medical devices, and food production and distribution can be impacted by outbreaks. This can cause reductions in supplies. For these reasons, getting your outbreak information from expert, credible sources is important.

Public health experts continue to monitor this outbreak and take steps to protect the public. This is also why public health education and science are important – for prevention and risk management. We will likely see more infections in the United States. But this is no reason to panic and this is another form of a virus that has been around before, similar to SARS (the 2003 severe respiratory outbreak in China).

Science is at the forefront of combating disease outbreaks. Real-time updates are being published by various academic institutions and government websites. Individual science experts are also continuously educating and communicating with the public about public health concerns.

Important coronavirus information can be seen with regular updates on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/summary.html

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bio
Author: Ben Alonzo is a unique scientist, tech expert, professor, and director of ULTRATechLife.com. He’s CEO of the sci-tech firm Storm Sector, LLC. Ben holds an M.S. in Information Technology, M.S. in Geoscience, M.S. in Nutrition and Health, and a B.S. in Geoscience. He’s a highly-rated professor that teaches earth science, environmental science, oceanography, meteorology, and public health. His diverse background spans numerous fields, network and computer systems, healthcare, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, and web development. Ben holds numerous professional licenses and certifications, ranging from information technology to healthcare and emergency medical technician. He’s also an FAA-licensed private pilot that loves flying. He’s been writing about science and tech for over 10 years. You can see some of his past articles on the Houston Chronicle, eHow, Hearst, and other networks. In his free time, he loves athletic adventures, scuba diving, traveling, storm chasing, producing videos and writing guitar music. More about author.

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