As the Bay Area and the rest of the country battens down the hatches in the face of a worldwide pandemic, most people are still wondering what exactly COVID-19 is, how dangerous is it and how likely are they to get it.
The coronavirus that causes the disease has already disrupted the world’s social and economic fabric since it was first detected in China in January, forcing schools and businesses to close down, travel to be restricted, entertainment, sporting events and all large gatherings to be canceled.
But what is the science behind this epidemic and how worried should we be? Here are some frequently asked questions.
How close are scientists to developing a vaccine?
Dozens of research groups around the world are working on potential COVID-19 vaccines. Researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle gave the first injection of an experimental coronavirus vaccine on Monday, according the the Associated Press.
That Seattle vaccine, code-named mRNA-1273, was developed by the National Institutes of Health and Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna. It was the first human trial of what experts believe will be a long series of trials.
How soon before the vaccine could be available to the public?
It will take 12 to 18 months of studies and testing before a vaccine could be available for widespread use, according to health services and pharmaceutical experts. Besides its effectiveness in preventing the disease, scientists must also determine whether the drug causes any harmful side effects, no matter how rare, and that requires testing of numerous people.
How is the coronavirus transmitted from one person to another?
Droplets of coronavirus remain airborne for a few seconds after someone sneezes or coughs, and those particles can travel a short distance and infect people close by. The virus-infused droplets can also fall on surfaces and infect people who touch those surfaces — that’s why it’s so important to wash your hands frequently. It is believed that the virus remains virulent for 24 hours on surfaces like cardboard and for two or three days on plastic or metal.
Can COVID-19 mutate? Are there different strains of the virus?
The rate of mutation in coronaviruses — about two mutations per month — is much slower than it is with the influenza virus, which averages about eight to 10 mutations per month. It means there are slight differences in the genetic code in various locations. This is how scientists can track the origin of a particular infection.
Scientists have, for instance, tracked the infections on the Grand Princess cruise ship and determined the virus originally came from Washington State. Other strains have been found in different California counties, and scientists are trying to track their origin and document the path of spread.
Can the virus mutate into a more deadly and virulent disease?
Additional study is needed to determine if more-deadly mutations are possible, but geneticists do not believe this coronavirus is likely to get more transmissible or deadly. Charles Chiu, a UCSF microbiologist, said most mutations are silent, making slight changes in DNA sequences without altering the characteristics the virus. He said flu viruses mutate at a much faster rate, which is why they return every year, but it is very rare for a particular flu to be much worse than its predecessors.
How deadly is COVID-19?
The mortality rate of COVID-19 is at least 10 times greater than influenza. That changes, however, depending on a person’s age. The death rate among people under age 40 is less than 1% percent. It is 14.8% for people over age 80 and 8% to 9% for people over age 70, Chiu said. It does not appear to seriously impact infants and young children, but they can spread the virus to others.
How infectious is coronavirus and how does that compare to other diseases?
The coronavirus and flu are about equal in how easily they can be transmitted to others. Unchecked, each person who gets COVID-19 transmits it to between two and three other people, although that can range from 1.4 to 4.1 people. Chiu said more testing would help narrow down those numbers.
Either way, the rate of transmission is far below that of measles. Each case of measles in an unvaccinated population will cause 12 to 18 new cases. Other infectious diseases, like polio, smallpox and rubella have infection rates of about six people per case.
What are the symptoms? How long before symptoms arise is the virus contagious?
The incubation period for the virus is about five days before a person feels symptoms. It is believed people are infectious about a day before they feel the effects. The symptoms in most people are similar to a severe case of the flu, beginning with cold-like symptoms, fever, dry cough and maybe diarrhea.
The symptoms usually begin to improve after seven days, but in about 20 percent of the cases, they get even more severe, turning into pneumonia. In some cases, respiratory failure occurs, necessitating a breathing tube. Most deaths occur from secondary bacterial infections, sepsis and kidney failure, often exacerbated by strong antibiotics that can be toxic to the kidneys, Chiu said. Even in less severe cases, the symptoms can last for several weeks.
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- Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits – The New York Times
- Trump Falsely Distorts New York Times COVID-19 Science Story – FactCheck.org
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- Coronavirus Today: Science will save us – Los Angeles Times
- Italians stuck at home are measuring light pollution for ‘science on the balcony’ – TechCrunch
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- College of Arts and Science converts thriving academic programs to departments – Vanderbilt University News