A few not-so fun facts about the strange behavior of COVID-19 (the disease) caused by SARS-CoV-2 (the virus).
COVID-19 is proving to be so unpredictable with so many variations that it really is weird. Most other coronaviruses merely cause a mild cold. This one can be lethal.
It’s deadliness is presumed to be from a “cytokine storm”, an explosive immune response to the virus within the infected person. This “hyper immune response” causes massive vascular damage in the lungs (and now kidneys and brain and toes.), BUT the people most vulnerable to the virus are those with suppression of their immune system (the elderly, people on chemotherapy, people taking high doses of steroids). You would expect that if your immune system was suppressed you would be less likely to have a “cytokine storm”.
SARS-CoV-2 causes major damage to essential organs, but it can also cause isolated loss of smell and taste, gastro-intestinal upset, headache, aches and pains, and, most mysteriously, just purple bruises on the toes of young adult males.
It is more likely to kill the elderly and those with chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and autoimmune diseases, but it can kill healthy 21 year olds with no other disease. There is some evidence that the amount or “dose” of the virus one receives is the cause of this variability. Young, healthy health care workers caring for Covid-19 patients in ICUs have higher rates of serious illness presumably due to the large amount of virus shed by their patients to which the workers are exposed.
It is highly contagious because one infected person can infect 2 or 3 other people before they have any symptoms. The SARS and MERS epidemics, the two previous lethal coronaviruses we experienced, were not so contagious. Both were spread by people who already knew they were sick, so it was possible to identify infected people, isolate them, and take containment steps. Also SARS and MERS killed their hosts (patients) so quickly that the spread of the infection to others was much less. In truth, why SARS and MERS disappeared before becoming a wider spread epidemic is not really known. (Maybe that’s where Trump got the idea of “a miracle” saving all of us from economic ruin.)
The higher death rate of infection in blacks and Hispanics has been explained by 1) assumed ethnic/racial differences, 2) the close living of tightly packed urban areas, and now 3) the greater exposure to air pollution from increased tiny particles (PM 2.5 – 2.5 millimeters in size) more prevalent in city air. Maybe all three?
Men are much more likely to die from the virus than women. Studies are now under way to test whether female hormone administration might protect infected males. We know that women are hardier than men in many diseases, and that it may be genetic rather than hormonal, but who knows?
Originally it was thought to skip children, but recent data from China shows that it can infect and cause serious illness in children, including infants. The virus apparently does not cause infant infection in utereo, but it is unclear whether infant infection occurs during the birth process or later by contact with the infected mother.
Rational, specific recommendations to meet a pandemic in the U.S. were developed in detail by a 2005 Pandemic Task Force started by President George Bush after he read an account of the 1918 influenza epidemic while on vacation. It was disbanded by Trump in a cost cutting move, and its report was ignored.
Pharmaceutical companies don’t like to invest in developing vaccines. It is very expensive, and they make little or no profit. Vaccines are administered once or maybe twice in a lifetime. Big Pharma makes more money out of treating chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer because those patients are on medications for a long time (like the rest of their lives). Even the development of antibiotics is low profit because patients only take them for 7-10 days, and they’re cured.
We know that three medications in combination suppresses HIV (the “AIDS cocktail”) . That treatment changed AIDS from an acute, lethal disease to a chronic, livable condition. Likewise, it may take several different medications in combination to suppress this virus.
Very rich capitalists (Bill and Melinda Gates) in the absence of governmental funding have given millions of dollars to support vaccine and medication development for the use of the world-wide population. (“Taking money from the rich to benefit the poor” sounds like Socialism doesn’t it?) Bill Gates sounded a pandemic warning as long ago as 2015, and as recently as this week.(1)
SARS-CoV-2 infection may or may not provide protection from reinfection. Most viruses, like measles, can infect you only once because the infection causes you to produce protective antibodies that persist for years. Unfortunately other coronaviruses studied have shown that their antibodies persist only for a few months, certainly not for over a year. This obviously has implications for administration frequency of any soon-to-be-developed vaccine.
We don’t know if SARS-CoV-2 will mutate like the flu virus does. If it does, then vaccination frequency will be like that for the flu: every year to protect against our the best guess of the strain that will appear that year.
Scientists are suspicious that this virus may become “seasonal” like influenza, despite it’s appearance world-wide in very different climates. It flourished in our winter and Australia’s summer, in our cold, wet Northeast and in sunny, dry California.
With the current state of knowledge about this virus it seems to me that we all are enrolled in a giant clinical study while awaiting the development of a vaccine and effective treatment. We are even dividing ourselves into “experimental groups” like Oklahoma, Iowa, and Florida that are lifting social restrictions and “control groups” like New York and Massachusetts that are not. Unlike the usual clinical study no one asked for our consent. It is just happening.
Clinical studies are very expensive for a variety of good reasons. It is very clear that this one, though unintentional, is costing all of us a great deal. Let’s hope that some results come soon.
1. New England Journal of Medicine 382;18 April 30, 2020