The SARS-CoV2 is a new virus. It will take time to develop a treatment or vaccine to the disease it is causing — called coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19. It has created a lot of disproportionate panic and misinformation already. It is essential to know the facts. Throughout this article, we will bust 24 common claims.
Outbreaks of infectious diseases have happened ever since people began to live in family groups and communities. Infections are caused by pathogens, bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that enter the human body and cause damage. The purpose of the pathogen is not to kill the host, it is to use the host in order to survive and multiply, which is the fundamental goal of all living things.
What we call disease is only a side-effect of the interaction between the pathogen and the host or the infected person. The host’s immune system does not like the perturbation caused by the interaction and tries to get rid of the pathogen to return to a normal or healthy state. To do that, the immune system has to recognise the pathogen and find a way of stopping it from making the host sick and removing it from the body.
In other words, the host learns about the pathogen and finds ways of protecting itself. But if the pathogen is a new one, the first time the host gets infected, he or she has no protection. This is what is happening in the world today with the disease called COVID-19 caused by the virus known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 or the SARS-CoV2.
Information on the virus
The virus has infected humans only since late last year, when it spread from Wuhan in China. But it has now spread around the world, causing a lot of infections and some deaths. This has resulted in a fear of the virus that is out of proportion with what we have learned in just the last few weeks about the disease. We have learnt how it spreads, who gets very sick and who does not and how we can prevent its spread, treat the disease and make new tests, drugs and vaccines.
When there is a lot that is unknown, we are afraid and rely on whatever information we find.
In today’s age of WhatsApp, a lot of the coronavirus information that is widely shared is inaccurate and believing it can do harm to people and to society.
What is true is that we have an infection that has spread rapidly and will continue to spread rapidly around the world if we do nothing about it. But there is a lot we can do — we can wash our hands, not touch our faces, stay away from people if we have fever and a cough, and go to a testing facility if we have been in contact with someone who may have COVID-19 infection.
What we are doing
There is a lot that the government can do also, and it is doing that by screening people coming from other countries, following up on people who have come in to see if they get sick, decreasing or closing travel from countries that have infections, and by making sure that we are prepared for testing and staying away from people if we are infected.
Closing schools, malls and cinemas is one way to stop many people coming together because it is people in close contact with each other, within 3-6 ft and for more than 15 minutes, who are mostly affected when a person is infected. In hospitals, because there are many procedures done on patients, extra care needs to be taken by doctors, nurses and others to limit the spread of infection to themselves and others.
We know all this about the virus already and every day we are learning more. Scientists have been working on developing drugs and vaccines, and we have never been able to move so fast before to get to a stage where the latest and fastest technologies have begun to show us what we will be able to do to control or prevent the virus soon. This will not happen tomorrow, because these drugs and vaccines will need to go through a lot of rigorous testing to make sure that they are safe and effective, but so far there are many approaches that are showing promising results in early testing. Governments, NGOs, scientists across the world are working together to move these through testing as quickly as possible.
All this is good progress. Yet, there is no proven therapy and technology that has met the high safety and standards of testing efficacy we need to have confidence in a vaccine or drugs.
Busting fake news
When there is so much information circulating, it is hard to know what is true and what is fake news.
It is important to use only information that comes from credible sources. But we also know that on social media, false information spreads further and faster than the truth. This is because medical science never says something is ‘100% safe’ or ‘100% effective’, because there is always some variation. False information has no problem making definitive claims. In the last few weeks, we have heard a lot that is untrue and wanted to make sure that everyone has the correct information.
Believing in prevention and treatment strategies that are untested can lead to a false sense of security and not taking the right steps to protect ourselves and others. Panic and irrationality generated by the social media ‘infodemic’ are dangerous and we all have a responsibility to make sure that we share information from trusted sources. Here are some common fake news doing the rounds.
The author is an expert on infectious diseases and best known for her work to develop the rotavirus vaccine. In 2019, she became the first Indian woman to be elected to the Royal Society of London. She teaches at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, and is the Executive Director of the Translational Health Science & Technology Institute in Faridabad. Views are personal.