Rachel Stone, biology instructor at Allen Community College, admits to being humbled as she learned more about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I distinctly recall in early February discussing the virus with students and describing the global reaction as ‘overblown,’” Stone told the Register. “And to be honest, I should’ve known better — I, along with everyone else, should’ve been listening to the experts telling us that not only was it just a matter of time before a viral pandemic occurred, but that this particular virus, COVID-19, had all of the qualities of becoming a widespread, devastating illness globally.
“I hope we are all listening now,” she said. “It is not time to panic, but it is time to take this seriously and to consider how our individual behavior can have a far-reaching impact on public health. The COVID-19 virus probably won’t be stopped any time soon, but we can slow its spread.”
Stone is not a virologist, but as a biologist still offers a keen insight into the growing pandemic.
She answered several questions from the Register regarding the ongoing health scare, and her thoughts about how Americans are responding. The random questions cover a wide assortment of topics, including the difficulties in getting accurate testing facilities in place across the country, to the effectiveness of antibiotic soap. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)
Her unabridged answers follow:
— What are your biggest concerns regarding the pandemic on a scientific level?
Just a few months ago, COVID-19 was totally unknown to science. So, scientists really are in the very early stages of getting to know this virus. New developments are happening incredibly quickly, and every day more information is coming out. But even though there are still a lot of unknowns, this is a threat that should be taken very seriously.
One of my biggest concerns is the downplaying of COVID-19 as “just another flu.” This is patently false and has the potential to hurt our community! Here is what we know:
Biologically, COVID-19 is not the flu. It is true that COVID-19 and influenza strains share some similarities: they are both viruses, they are both highly contagious, and they can share many symptoms — but COVID-19 is not an influenza strain.
The qualities that make COVID-19 different from the flu also make it uniquely good at spreading to pandemic levels. For example, it takes more than twice as long to develop symptoms of COVID-19 after infection compared to the flu. This means that infected people have a much longer opportunity to shed the virus in public before they realize they are even sick. On top of its increased ability to lurk in an asymptomatic population, the virus has been found to be about twice as contagious as the flu — so not only is there more opportunity for the virus to be shed unknowingly in public, but that virus getting shed is able to infect people at a higher rate than the flu. The third quality in this terrible trifecta is that COVID-19 is more deadly than the flu. Influenza strains routinely kill about 0.1% of the population while the fatality rate for COVID-19 is around 3%. That might not seem like much, but that is a 30-fold increase!
On top of all this, complications, including fatalities, are much more likely in the elderly population and those with already compromised health such as the obese and immune-disordered. Even though you might not be in one of these at-risk populations, your ability to harbor and spread this virus to our vulnerable populations is a very real risk. It is so important to think about the effects of this virus in terms of overall public health rather than individual health.
— Can we really understand both the short- and long-term physical effects if someone has been affected yet? Are hidden long-term side effects possible?
It is still too early to really understand the long-term effects of COVID-19, but there is evidence that individuals who recover from infection can have substantial damage done to their lungs. This damage entails a measurable decrease in lung capacity as well as the disturbing observation of fluid buildup resembling “ground glass” in CT scans of fully recovered patients’ lungs. This is still a relatively new discovery, and it is unknown what other potential long-term consequences physicians may find down the road.
— I’ve yet to hear if someone tests positive and recovers, are they then immune? Is it too soon to tell? Have you heard of other such viruses where somebody could be reinfected?
As far as I know, there have been a few reported cases in China and Japan of an infected patient testing positive for COVID-19 after recovery; however, it is unclear whether or not these are actually cases of relapse rather than a true reinfection event.
With COVID-19 having emerged so recently, there just aren’t enough studies yet to understand the development of immunity. And it’s important to realize that development of immunity may very well differ from person to person too! Although, we can look to other coronaviruses to make more informed predictions. The closely-related virus, SARS, that caused an outbreak in the early 2000s is also a coronavirus and may hold some clues for us. In the studies that followed SARS recovery, scientists found that patients maintained SARS-specific antibodies in their blood for about two years after infection. After those two years had passed, antibodies for SARS dropped significantly. This suggests, but certainly doesn’t prove, that reinfection of SARS could be possible just a few years after the initial infection. The only way to prove reinfection is possible is to re-expose recovered patients to the virus, and that is obviously not an ethical approach.
— How often do viruses like COVID-19 mutate? Since it’s previously unheard of, is there any guess as to how long it takes researchers to learn all of its aspects?
It is well-known that viruses can mutate very quickly, but the truth is that generally most mutations are innocuous mistakes made while replicating the viral genome. The fact that COVID-19 is mutating is not in itself a cause for concern. These mutations can be neutral or can even be harmful to the virus itself, but there is also a chance that mutations can benefit viruses in terms of survival or ability to spread. For these reasons, it would be irresponsible of me to drum up panic about COVID-19 mutating—the consequences of its mutations can go in many different directions that are just not predictable at this moment. Although, researchers have now successfully sequenced the genome for COVID-19, and this is really great news because it will allow for development of better tests and can help us track genome mutations as the virus moves through the human population.
— I’ve heard conflicting stories about testing and vaccines. Why is there such a disparity between what the United States can offer versus other countries. It seems like there are places that can do testing by the hundreds of thousands, yet as far as I know, it’s almost impossible to get one in Kansas.
Can we not just replicate one of the other tests. Or is it a matter of perspective. (After all, it’s only been a few weeks and we are talking about a virus that had never existed five months ago).
The lack of testing makes it really hard to truly describe the infection rates of COVID-19 in the US. We are fumbling around in a dark room, but with adequate tests public health officials might be able to turn on the lights, take a look around, and answer the important questions: “Who is infected right now and how fast is this virus spreading?”. Unfortunately, we are not adequately testing in the U.S. In fact, the test for COVID-19 is not as simple as other clinical tests we might think of for things like strep throat or the flu. Instead, the current test is not really just one “test” at all but rather an outlined laboratory protocol, like a recipe, for matching specific genetic sequences of the virus to the genetic sequence of the patient’s sample. The CDC has developed kits to carry out this testing protocol with all the necessary reagents and primers, like the ingredients needed for the recipe, and has begun sending these kits to many public health labs in the nation. But since receiving these kits, many labs have run into issues with verifying their results due to faulty reagents. This has caused the terrible problem of only having a few labs nationally that were able to test for the COVID-19 virus for a time. Since then, work has been done to address the “bottleneck effect” we’re dealing with, and hopefully more streamlined methods for testing as well as for the logistics of kit distributions will be unfolding. China and Singapore have developed different testing strategies all together which look for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in the blood, so there are other avenues that need exploring. Sadly, there just doesn’t seem to be a fast solution for this problem.
— As for the vaccines, I heard it will take months at a minimum to develop one, yet they’re already testing some human subjects. Is this typical?
This is not typical at all! Generally, the fast-track development of a vaccine still takes multiple years. Usually the, very simplified of course, steps look like this: animal models for the disease are identified, vaccines are tested on animals, vaccines are then tested on humans to make sure they’re safe, then vaccines are tested on a lot more humans to make sure they’re effective. All of these steps take a lot of time, not to mention the time it takes to then make mass production of vaccines a reality. But, finding a vaccine for COVID-19 has been made an urgent priority, and testing in humans is already underway. The process of identifying a disease and developing a vaccine while the initial outbreak is still going on is very much unchartered waters, but speed is of the essence in this scenario.
— A more general question. What’s the difference between a bacterial and viral infection?
Bacterial infections are caused by single-celled, living organisms and can be treated through the administration of antibiotics. Viral infections are caused by viruses, which are arguably not living things at all, but rather organized packets of genetic material that can hijack our living cells and trick them into making copies of the virus. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, so physicians typically turn to antivirals to treat viral infections. Antivirals don’t kill viruses, because you cannot kill something that is not living, but they do work to interrupt the ability of the virus to replicate.
— Does antibacterial soap offer any more protection than regular soap?
Nope, antibacterial soap is in no way more beneficial than just regular old soap. The reason soap works so well at inactivating viruses is that soap molecules dissolve away the fatty membrane that protects the virus. With the protective membrane broken down, the virus’s genetic material is exposed and compromised. The action of washing your hands and rinsing them with water then washes away the now inactivated virus. This is true for any old soap, the addition of antibiotics to soap is totally unnecessary—first of all, antibiotics don’t have an effect of viruses, and secondly adding superfluous antibiotics to our waterways is a recipe for antibiotic resistance in bacteria which is an entirely different (but very important) public health concern.
— It seems like the local, state and federal governments are regularly taking more steps to stem the spread of this coronavirus. Does this raise your concern that the previous measures haven’t been sufficient? What more steps can be taken?
The worst fact of the COVID-19 outbreak is that the future is unknown. I cannot speak to whether or not the current measures of prevention are adequate, but I suspect that as things unfold, more steps will need to be taken to slow infection rates. The balance as we proceed is in ameliorating the public health crisis while not exacerbating the economic one.