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March 31 Update: Why has COVID-19 hit so hard?

  • March 31, 2020

March 31, 2020
Hannover, Germany

Good morning,

Watching the news, you might have the feeling that we are fighting a war against a deadly enemy we can’t see. We understand that it is a virus which sits on our hands and infects, mostly, our bronchial system. But why is it all of a sudden so dramatic? Don’t we have viruses around us all the time? Why is it so contagious? Is it a more dangerous virus?

To answer at least some of these questions and to understand COVID-19 we have to put it into perspective.

COVID-19 is not the only virus epidemic on the planet at the moment – there is still an ongoing ebolavirus epidemic that began in 2017. However, this epidemic is limited to Africa, mostly in the Congo, and has not spread worldwide. Some of you may have seen, however, warning signs for ebolavirus at airports. 

The rapid spread to become a worldwide epidemic of COVID-19 shows just how highly contagious this virus is; it jumps easily from one person to another. This is why “distancing” and “washing your hands” and “not touching without washing” are so important. It is easy to get to know a virus in New York City during rush hour. It is more difficult to meet a virus while you are walking down Main Street in Bar Harbor.

But it is not only the contact that has caused the issues we are facing, it is also that this the first time we’ve “met” with the virus. The first encounter is always significant. We are unprepared; we say “who are you?” to the virus. Our immune system has no recollection. The virus is picked up by touching, transported to our mouth and nose, and enters the bronchial system and infects the body before our immune system has a chance to say “hello”. It may well be that in the months to come we will meet the virus again and just nod in passing. After the first meeting it will be different. Our bodies will be more alert and may kill the virus immediately with antibodies, complement system and macrophages. 

So, why does this virus have to be so aggressive? Couldn’t it be friendlier? After all, rhinoviruses gives you a runny nose and that’s it.  It may not seem like it right now, but, in fact, the coronavirus is not as hazardous as ebolavirus. If you are infected by ebolavirus the mortality rate is 80-90%. Infection with coronavirus has, as far as we have seen, a mortality rate of less than 5%.  

In the future, this rate will be important because the danger from coronavirus will still exist, but the size of the problem will be much smaller. The problem right now is because this is humans first encounter with COVID-19, and that is why it is so devastating. Yes, the virus will still be a problem, even a small “outbreak” in a nursing home will be a medical problem and an emergency. But these smaller virus outbreaks happen all the time. Take norovirus as an example — this virus causes severe diarrhea for a couple of days and is also highly contagious. A norovirus outbreak in confined situations, like a cruise ship or hospital, is not so uncommon and it definitely isn’t pleasant. But it is manageable, requiring a high level of hygiene, keeping everyone well hydrated, and perhaps IV drips for elderly patients. You almost never hear about it in the news. I believe and hope this will be the future of coronavirus.

Stay well and keep your unwashed hands from your face.

Best,
HH


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