The Invisible Symptoms of Coronavirus
At first, they were a short burst of heavy coughing. Eventually, it became difficult to breathe. And then the fever set in. On Sunday, January 19th, the first patient in the U.S. (a resident of Snohomish County) to contract 2019-nCoV, or coronavirus, was officially diagnosed. Wuhan, a major transportation hub in China, is currently believed to be the source of the outbreak. Interviews conducted revealed that many of the first patients may have visited the same fish market while in Wuhan prior to experiencing symptoms.
However, before exploring the virus outbreak in detail, it might be helpful to review what viruses actually are. In general, viruses are protein particles with a core composed of genetic material. They are not considered living organisms, as they are not known to possess the ability to reproduce or undergo metabolism on their own. Viruses instead must rely on the cellular machinery of whatever they infect to make more of themselves. This modern coronavirus, a relative of the coronavirus responsible for the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, is thought to be zoonotic, or able to infect human and non-human animals. The host range, or variety of species a virus is able to infect, is determined by its proteins; specifically, the proteins that attach to their host’s cellular membranes, which differ in structure between species. One last point of interest is that the coronavirus uses RNA, rather than DNA, as its primary genetic material. While this is not unique to coronaviruses as a whole, it’s thought that this makes RNA viruses, or retroviruses, more adaptable to an extent, as RNA is an information molecule with an inherently less stable structure than DNA and more susceptible to mutation.
These along with other traits are what give the Centers for Disease Control cause for concern, and some to speculate that the coronavirus may become a pandemic. But while coronaviruses do possess many traits that make them legitimate threats to human health and indeed these same traits give it the potential to be highly infectious, it’s necessary to keep some important points in mind. Namely, in the case of viruses, it’s extremely rare that they are both highly lethal and contagious enough to do the damage that influenza did in 1918 for example. And during an outbreak, while having information in real time is vital, that information is by virtue subject to change. This, among other things, makes covering an outbreak difficult. Another example is the recent Ebola scare.
Another issue lies in the source of information that often circulates when an outbreak occurs. Tabloid and obscure online news outlets often misquote or misrepresent data that is incorrect, biased, or not given in the proper context. Worse still, the improper interpretation of scientific literature may contribute to a hazy, distorted, and panic-inducing (but supposedly credible) view of what may, in fact, be a fairly controlled situation. Distressing headlines can spread bad information like wildfire through other online periodicals and suddenly appear mainstream. Consider the following title on DC Clothes Line, one such online news outlet: Coronavirus Hits 15% Fatality Rate, 83% Infection Rate for Those Exposed; Lancet Publishes Early Study That Points to Alarming Consequences for Humanity. The Lancet is a reputable scientific journal, despite that it once hosted Andrew Wakefield’s now debunked paper, responsible for inciting the modern vaccine scare. But, taking a closer look, the study, which acknowledges the limitations of its findings, consists of only 41 people, many of which were greater than 49 years old. Additionally, a large number of subjects in the study had some variety of comorbidity (co-occurring illness) that may have been a factor in the quality of data gathered.
With this in mind, it can be hard to know how to respond during an outbreak report such as this. Above all, as when receiving information of any kind, it is important to maintain a skeptical, critical mindset – one that asks questions and expects evidence-based, sensible answers from reputable sources. For the current outbreak, the CDC has published a set of recommendations regarding prevention. In that spirit, the authors of this work make no attempt to prognosticate or predict the scope and magnitude of the eventual coronavirus situation. That’s better left to the experts.
Instead, it is more reasonable to ask where the coronavirus may have originated, and given that, perhaps speculate on how a similar outbreak could be prevented in the future. To these questions, there actually exist some fairly compelling answers. Coronaviruses as a whole, with particular regard to the most recent, are known to originate in bats, with an additional potential reservoir, or environment in which a virus reproduces, of snakes.
The human genome preserves evidence of very ancient viruses that have attacked humanity in the past. They’re nothing new. But what is new is the response. A forced mass quarantine that is uncertain to be effective is vastly different from the cover-up during the SARS outbreak in 2002. While the threat of death and calamity is extremely uncertain in the wake of 2019-nCoV, one hopes that the forced relocation of millions of China’s residents isn’t just the beginning of what could be a very severe, ineffectual containment effort. The world at large can scarcely guess as to what the chaos at the center of such a situation really looks like, and the best response, if there is one, might be an act as small as hand washing and, if one were thinking of a trip to the region, to stay home.