Of Viruses, COVID-19, and Finding Truth Amid Opinions

| March 20, 2020 | 0 Comments

Some Plain News subscribers have asked for more information on COVID-19, which is causing so much news, tremors, and rumors. Other Plain News subscribers are probably tired of hearing about it.

This article is an attempt to explain viruses in general, the specific virus that causes COVID-19, the flu viruses, what recommendations are being given for COVID-19, and related topics.

The problem in compiling this information is that conflicting material is floating around, including conspiracy theories, misinformation, suppositions, and other whatnot. Where is the truth?

To be honest, I do not know. The material compiled below is taken from reputable medical organizations, government agencies, and other websites that are generally considered to be reputable. Opinions that I try to avoid come from Joe Blogger and Amy Opinionator, who have a keyboard, an opinion, and a blog or website to diffuse whatever personal take they have on the matter. That said, even “reputable” websites are not always free from political, professional, or personal bias.

I am reminded of a saying that I found recently while researching another topic: “It is easier to scare people than to educate them.” Expect me to use that sentence in more articles coming up!

Lord, help us find the truth, in all matters!

~Mike Atnip

Viruses

Wikipedia defines a virus as “a biological agent that reproduces inside the cells of living hosts. When infected by a virus, a host cell is forced to produce thousands of identical copies of the original virus at an extraordinary rate.”

Viruses are tiny: 1/100 of the size of a typical bacteria, or 20-300 nanometers (which is 1 billionth of a meter, or 0.00000004 inches, 400 millionths of an inch.). You will never see a virus with an optical microscope; a scanning electron microscope is needed to make an image of a virus. Scanning electron microscopes shoot electron beams at the subject, and then read the reflection of those beams to make an image.

Despite their tiny size, one researcher claims—and probably rightly so—that viruses are the most abundant form of life on Earth. Currently, researchers have discovered more than 5,000 species of viruses. But virologists will be quick to tell you that they are just scraping the tip of the iceberg with their current knowledge: I think I read one virologist saying that they probably only know “about 1%” of what there is to know about these tiny, living creatures.

Not all bad!

We tend to think of viruses as always being bad, but, like bacteria, some are good. Viruses are naturally found everywhere, and I think it is safe to assume that any large living organism is going to have a few million or billion viruses living in them.

One virus species is known to kill certain “bad” bacteria, and investigation is being made into whether this could be a form of medical treatment: introduce the good virus, so as to kill the bad bacteria. Another unique virus has been found to live in symbiosis (meaning several life forms live together, but cannot survive individually) with a fungus and a “panic grass” that grows close to the hot geysers in Yellowstone National Park. This threesome can survive in soil at a “simmering” 122 degrees Fahrenheit! Don’t try that with your tomato plants … unless you add the virus and the fungus. Yes! The researcher found that adding that same virus and fungus to other plants made them capable of surviving in soil temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Other virus species can make plants more drought tolerant or more cold tolerant.

More could be said about some of the positive uses of viruses. But we need to look at some of the "bad" guys.

Coronaviruses

A coronavirus is a Family of viruses. If you remember taxonomy (which means “classification”), you remember that all of life is divided (by scientists) into Kingdom, Phylum (which means “tribe”), Class, Order, Family, Genus, and species. So, a coronavirus is a Family of viruses. I could not find how many species of viruses are in the coronavirus Family, but suffice it to say that researchers in China have found “hundreds” of coronaviruses in bats, just from one cave. Don’t worry … those same scientists say that “most of them are harmless.”

The name coronavirus comes from the shape of the viruses, with spikes sticking out in all directions that can appear like a crown. And, “corona” is the Latin (and Spanish) word for crown. Hence, a coronavirus is a “crowned virus.” Meet a model of one, following.

CCA-SA 4.0 Int., by www.scientificanimations.com

Viruses are invaders, squatters, and parasites, in that they cannot divide themselves and thus multiply themselves, as many cells do. To replicate, they attach themselves to cells, basically take over the host cell, and force it to make more copies of the virus. Don't ask me how all that works!

COVID-19

The disease that is causing the current world health crisis has been named COVID-19. This is an acronym for COronaVIrus Disease 2019. The particular coronavirus that is causing COVID-19 has been named SARS-CoV-2, which means “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2. We have seen SARS before, right?

SARS

The first (known) SARS outbreak occurred from November 2002 to July 2003. About 9,000 people were infected, with about 750 deaths. This calculates to a fatality rate of about 9.5%. The coronavirus responsible for that outbreak has been ultimately traced back to horseshoe bats in China. However, it is suspected that the virus came to humans by means of civets, which are an animal in southeastern Asia that look like a mixture between cats and raccoons. Raccoon dogs, ferret badgers, and domestic cats have also been found carrying the coronavirus that is responsible for SARS.

MERS

MERS stands for Middle East respiratory syndrome and is caused by a coronavirus. MERS is also known as “camel disease,” since camels were the likely “middle man” between humans and … tomb bats! (By the time you finish reading this article, you may not like bats very much!) MERS is a particularly potent coronavirus, with a death rate of about 36%. This means, of course, that more than one out of every three people who contract MERS will die from it. However, MERS has a low transmission rate: since it was first discovered in 2012, MERS has infected less than 2,000 people.

Influenza

While on the subject, we need to mention influenza, or the “flu.” Influenza is caused by a virus, but from the orthomyxovirus Family, not the coronavirus Family. So, while the symptoms between the flu and COVID-19 are similar, they are different viruses.  There are four Genera (plural of Genus) of flu viruses, with three of them able to make humans sick. This means that the number of flu virus species is large. This, then, shows why flu vaccinations only help about 1/3 of the time: no one knows which of the various flu virus species will come floating through a community. Since the various flu virus species need different vaccines, it becomes a kind of “hit and miss” game to know which particular vaccine will be needed where. The vaccines do generally work; it is just a matter of getting the right vaccine to the right locality at the right time. So it is that on average flu vaccinations are only effective about 1/3 of the time.

The Spanish Flu

If COVID-19 seems imposing, we need to remember that the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918 made about 25% of people on earth sick. Death numbers are impossible to know, but estimates run from 1% to 6% of the world's population died, making it the deadliest viral epidemic ever for humans. (The Black Death was a bacterial infection, not a viral infection.) The unique thing about the Spanish flu is that it was especially deadly on younger adults, the part of the population that is usually the least affected by sickness. Because of the lack of international communication then that is available now, it is hard to know the details, but it is assumed that the Spanish flu virus itself may not have directly killed so many, but a combination of the flu virus mixed with bacterial infections. Suffice it to say that it was a dark chapter in human health history.

No one knows how many other disease incidents in history were from flu viruses, but it appears from historical records that these flu viruses have been around for a long time, coming and going in various editions.

Back to the bats

Before moving on, we need to consider the point about bats being considered the original hosts of some of the recent coronavirus outbreaks in humans. The fact is that many different viruses are present in every species of animal. Many of these viruses will not harm other species when a transfer does occur. No one knows how many more species of harmful (to humans) viruses are out there in other animals.

Sometimes a virus can jump to humans directly from the original carrier. This can happen when a person (for example) would eat the meat, get blood on them (in a slaughterhouse), drink milk, blood, or urine (Don’t let the thought make you sick, but some people in the Middle East drink camel urine “for health purposes”! The tradition goes back to at least the prophet Mohammad, who advised some sick people to drink the urine and milk of camels), or handle live animals and come in contact with saliva or feces.

With animals that are common food sources for humans, such as cows, deer, or chickens, any viruses carried by those species have long been in contact with humans and are already history when it comes to how they affect humans. It is the rarer species that are more likely to spread some previously unknown bad virus to humans. However, as has been seen, sometimes the bad viruses jump from the original carrier to an intermediate carrier and then to humans, such as appears to have happened with the camels and the civets.

Viruses also live in plants, but it is generally thought that plant-based viruses do not affect humans because of the difference between a plant cell and an animal cell. However, some emerging evidence is pointing towards the idea that a few plant-based viruses may be able to harm humans.

Here we are …

We now have a new coronavirus infecting us humans, one that causes sickness and sometimes even death. What do we do?

First of all, some statistics to consider.

The death rate for COVID-19 is, worldwide, about 4%. This means that 1 out of every 25 people who get sick with the disease will die because of it. However, The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that with good care, the death rate is only about 1%. The biggest issue with COVID-19 is with the elderly.

For those under 60 years of age, COVID-19 will affect them much like the flu viruses. Less than 1% of the infected will die, on average, with a slightly higher death incidence for COVID-19 compared to the flu. (.01% for the flu (1 out of 10,000), versus .20% (2 out of 1000) for COVID-19).

But for those older than 60 years of age, COVID-19 takes a serious leap in mortality. For the flu, the death rate is slightly under 1% (1 out of 100) for those over 60 years of age. But for COVID-19, consider the following death rates:

60-69: 3.6%

70-79: 8%

80+: 14.8% (15 out of 100)

While any deaths are a concern, the higher death rate from COVID-19 among the elderly is a special concern. Even so, only one out of six elderly who contract the disease will die from COVID-19, meaning that if an elderly person does get the disease (and not all of them would even get it if it sweeps through), they should not assume that they are going to die from it. Most elderly people do not die from it.

Flattening the curve

How should people respond to the outbreak? How should governments respond?

As can be imagined, the gamut runs from a total “Who cares? Let’s get on with life …” to outright panic. Governments around the world are trying various control methods, in varying degrees of intensity. After this whole scenario has passed, perhaps there can be a consensus as to which method proved best. Should everyone be locked down into staying home, upon pain of a fine or jail? Should only specific areas that have known cases be locked down? Should governments make suggestions, but not make laws? Is it worth making millions of people lose their income for weeks or months, to possibly save the lives of a few elderly who are going to die shortly anyways? (Rhetorical questions)

A year from now we may be able to look back and clearly see what “should have been done.” Meanwhile, as Christians, let’s be careful about criticizing any government leaders, either for doing too much or doing too little. It is easier to criticize than to get up and do something positive with our own lives. Imagine yourself as the leader of a nation, having to decide the best course of action so as to save lives, but also to keep panic down, keep society functioning economically, and not making anyone gripe!

For the United States, the plan of action has been called “flattening the curve.” Consider the following graph:

Public domain image.

The blue line is the number of cases that hospitals can take care of. The red line is what (likely) would happen if nothing is done. The disease would quickly spread, thousands and thousands would want hospital care, and there simply would not be room for everyone. The green line is what “flattening the curve” is shooting for: the same number of people will get the disease, but they will be spread out over a longer period of time. A government may try to flatten the curve by not strictly enforcing social distancing, but strongly encouraging it. This appears to be the strategy of the United States. Other nations are taking stronger or looser stances. The strongest stances essentially forbid anyone to leave their houses.

The "flattening the curve" philosophy takes the position that to eliminate COVID-19 from the world is probably impossible by now. Even if (for example) the U.S. could eliminate it within its borders, unless international travel is completely stopped, it would soon be right back. So, instead of spending the next few years in a constant battle to keep it from coming back, it is probably more efficient overall to let it run its course, but with some constraints to keep the health care system from overloading. Is this the best philosophical outlook to have for the situation? Who knows, but God?

15 days

The average time from picking up SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 to the onset of symptoms is about five days. However, a few people go as long as 15 days before showing symptoms. So, the number 15 becomes a kind of “magic” number: If everyone stays home for 15 days, everyone who has already contracted the disease will begin to show symptoms (and hopefully self-quarantine), and new cases would (in theory) drop off dramatically, if not completely.

In a nation of 300 million people, and a disease in which many people actually have minor symptoms (some may not even know that they have it), to think of totally containing COVID-19 is almost too much to ask. But to slow it down, so as to not break down the health care system, may be possible. This appears to be the tactic that several nations in the world are trying. WHO has lauded China, because China has kept the disease largely contained to one province, and the number of new cases has dropped very dramatically. This came at the cost of basically locking down the part of the nation where COVID-19 first erupted. Time will tell if China can totally eradicate it from their borders. And, if they do eradicate it, will they be able to keep it from coming back in, now that it is basically spread all over the world?

Our part

The BIG question is, what should we, as Christians, be doing? Should we quit meeting together if the government only suggests stopping large gatherings, but without actually making it illegal? Do we shut down our non-essential businesses for weeks or months while the bills keep rolling in, potentially making us suffer economic failure?

The specific answers to these questions are beyond what Plain News is called to provide; that is the call of local churches. However, a few general suggestions can be recommended.

  • First of all, trust God; don’t panic. This disease is not like the Black Death in the Middle Ages that killed 1/3 of the population of Europe. With proper care, only about one out of 100 who contract COVID-19 will die. The infection rate could be as high as 50% of the population (according to one disease specialist), but will most likely be less than that. In other words, in a worst-case scenario, up to half the population in the U.S. will get the disease sooner or later.
  • Respect government rules as much as possible, without bad-mouthing the government. If the government only advises people to not congregate, but does not actually make it a law, we can still respect that they are implementing what they think is best. Any social distancing that is called for is not religious persecution; it is a public health matter.
  • Beware of conspiracy theories that are floating around. I will not even mention them in particular so as to not spread them. In general, some people are accusing certain governments for the rise of COVID-19. The genome of SARS-CoV-2 matches extremely close, if not perfectly, to what is naturally found in some bats, according to researchers. The open wildlife markets in China have been criticized as the starting point for the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into humans; that is not proven at this point, although it is a possibility. (China has shut them down drastically since this outbreak.) Chinese people do eat wildlife, as do people all around the world, including species that we do not eat in our part of the world. They also incorporate animal parts into their traditional Chinese medicine, which could also be an entry point of wild animal viruses into humans.
  • Use the opportunity to do some good. Do you have elderly neighbors who may be at higher risk than the general population? Offer to do their shopping for them (but be careful to not be the one who gives them the virus!).
  • Funerals and weddings may need to be made as “immediate family only” events. A wedding planned for March 21 that I know of will be held in a barn with immediate family only, since renting a large facility is now impossible, and unnecessary traveling is discouraged. The couple will be just as married and (hopefully!) just as happy as if their original plans could have been carried out.
  • Let’s welcome ourselves to the rest of the world! We, the over-privileged North Americans, can get just a little taste of what much of the world lives like in a restricted society.
  • Let’s take the opportunity to get a sense of what life was like for the first 60 centuries of history: They didn’t travel all over the place freely, have mega-church Sunday morning meetings with people from many, many miles away in regular attendance, but they met with and related to their neighbors whose houses they could walk to. (Maybe we should stick with that, once COVID-19 has passed through? It wouldn't hurt us; two-thirds of the world still lives that way. Smile!)

In particular

Getting down to some practical advice on how to deal with the disease itself, consider the following points to help limit the spread.

  • COVID-19 (and flu viruses) is spread primarily through the moisture droplets that come out of the mouth and nose. Other transmission may be possible (feces, blood, etc.), but sneezing and coughing are the biggest spreaders of the virus. Common sense, then, tells us that we should cover our faces when sneezing or coughing. If a tissue is not available, health organizations suggest using the old “sneeze into your elbow” technique that we sometimes consider less than good etiquette; it’s better than sneezing into the open air. A single cough can blow out up to 3,000 droplets of moisture, with tens of thousands of virus copies in each droplet.
  • The next most common advice from health officials is to regularly (but not obsessively) wash your hands with water and soap. Wash for at least 20 seconds, using plenty of soap. The idea is that those infected water droplets that we blow out of our mouth and nostrils are very likely to end up on our hands, or we pick them up from things we touch. A good wash with soap and water will wash away a good portion, if not all, of the viruses on our hands.
  • Hand sanitizers are not generally needed if the hands are washed properly. However, items that are handled regularly, such as doorknobs and handrails, are recommended to be disinfected regularly (but not obsessively). Testing is incomplete, but evidence indicates that viruses can survive for up to several days on some hard surfaces. Mobile phones may be a good place to start disinfection programs in your home! (Alcohol of at least 75% strength is a good disinfectant, as well as hydrogen peroxide and bleach at 0.5%.)
  • Avoid touching your face with your hands. This is because the viruses are found in the moisture that comes out of the mouth and nostrils, and the face is the most obvious place where that moisture lands first. Once we get it on our hands, then that moisture can be transferred to other objects, such as doorknobs, where others can then pick it up. Or, if we have picked up infected moisture droplets with our hands, we will not then transfer them to our mouth.
  • Avoid handshakes (and the Holy Kiss) as a greeting.
  • Be especially mindful of the elderly, who are more vulnerable to this particular virus. Anyone with any kind of flu-like symptoms should consider themselves unfit to be in the presence of an elderly person. (This is good advice even for the common flu viruses.)
  • Anyone with flu-like symptoms should self-quarantine in a private room for 15 days or longer, even if the symptoms are very mild. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Again, this is general good advice even in cases of common flu viruses. Don’t go to church meetings when you have the flu!)
  • WHO does not recommend the use of masks for people who do not currently have the disease. But for a home where a diseased person is quarantined, a mask is recommended for both the sick person and the caretakers. Part of the recommendation to not use a mask for the uninfected seems to be that masks will then be available for those who really need them the worst. If everyone in the world runs to buy masks, not enough will be available … as has been seen already. Be aware that not all masks are equal in their filtering capabilities, if you do start using them.
  • The elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory issues should be especially guarded.
  • Wash tableware and dishes well with soapy water. Those homes which have a quarantined person in the house will need to take special precaution with these items.
  • Cook all meats to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. This, again, is good advice for all times, not just during a virus epidemic.
  • No vaccine is available for COVID-19, and most likely will not be available for a year or more, even though tests are already in place to come up with one.
  • There is no such thing as a drug that kills viruses, although antiviral drugs inhibit virus reproduction. In other words, once you have a virus, barring a miracle you are stuck with it until your body eventually succumbs to it, or overcomes it on its own. Antivirals can only slow down the reproduction rate of certain viruses. Don't fall for advertisements offering an herbal remedy or super drug that will supposedly cure or prevent viral infections.
  • Don't take it out on the bats! They have a unique place in the world, that of insect control. Bats are some of the most efficient insect catchers known. We really do not need to fear bats, but take this as a reminder that you should probably avoid eating bat meat unless it is thoroughly cooked! (Yes, people are known to eat bats!)

Every day, approximately ...

  • from 94 (last flu season) to 167 (two seasons ago) people in the U.S. will die from the flu. (Worldwide, it averages from about 2,000 to 3,000 daily.)
  • 129 people will die from suicide in the U.S. Many others will try and fail.
  • 100 people will die in a vehicle accident in the U.S. Many others will be injured, some seriously and permanently.
  • 192 people in the U.S. will die of a drug overdose.
  • 1,315 people will die in the U.S. as a result of smoking tobacco.
  • 1,706 babies in the U.S. will die because of an abortion.

Do we have greater pressing crises in our land, greater than COVID-19?

~Mike Atnip

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