by Dr. James Riggs
As swiftly as the coronavirus pandemic barreled through the U.S. in early 2020, so did misinformation about the virus. Would it fade out in the summer because of higher temperatures and increased exposure to UV rays? Do masks cause carbon dioxide retention? In short, science says, no. Understanding the basics of how viruses work can help alleviate some of the rampant misunderstandings regarding COVID-19.
What is a virus?
It's like a rude party guest. It wasn't invited. It crashes the party, raids your fridge and essentially trashes your house. However, unlike any rude guest I'm aware of, it makes thousands of copies of itself before it busts out and invades neighboring homes.
All viruses are obligate, intracellular parasites, meaning they are not cells but must (obligatory) get into cells (intracellular) in order to take over the host cell’s machinery and reproduce.
Is covid-19 like the flu?
No. We know how flu impacts the body. That's why there are vaccines for the flu. Science is still figuring out how the coronavirus affects the immune system.
We understand that unlike the flu virus, COVID-19 is not very good at making variant strains. Our body's immune system should be effective at fighting the virus. However, in some patients, COVID-19 runs wild and turns the immune system against the body.
Looking at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the pandemic has proved deadlier than the flu. In just six months, COVID-19 killed more than 200,000 Americans. The worst year for flu deaths in recent years was the 2017-18 season with 61,000 deaths. In the past year, the flu killed 0.83% of infected individuals 65 years and older, while COVID-19 has killed 10.4%.
If someone survives infection do they have immunity?
We are still learning whether those surviving infection have long-lasting immunity. Regardless, scientists are making vaccines that will generate durable, protective immunity that stimulates both antibody and T cell production. Antibodies block COVID-19 from entering cells, whereas T cells kill cells that have become virus factories.
Are you sure that these vaccines are going to work?
COVID-19 establishes infection faster than the immune system can generate protective immunity so vaccines that “train” our immune system to recognize this virus will be essential. Although the unprecedented speed of COVID-19 vaccine development has raised concern, I can tell you that based on my 35 years of experience as a National Institutes of Health trained and funded research immunologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, can be trusted to support only a safe, effective vaccine. We must be patient and wait for the research and testing.
What about masks and social distancing?
Masks work! Several Asian countries have been using masks for decades to reduce viral transmission. Virus particles are very small and can remain in the air in moist droplets for hours in confined spaces. A barrier between your mouth and nose is critical to stopping the spread.
Social distancing works! Consider how COVID-19 quickly infected thousands in the densely populated Northeast. Once we went into quarantine, viral transmission dropped markedly. The virus then expanded down South where there was less mask compliance and distancing, but most notably where people were moving indoors due to the heat as spring became summer.
As Scotty, the engineer on the original Star Trek series, used to say, “I can’t change the laws of physics, Jim.” Physical barriers to virus transmission, masks and distancing are our best bet to control this virus. With no new hosts to perpetuate the virus, the transmission cycle burns itself out.
What keeps this immunologist/microbiologist up at night?
We have known that a respiratory virus pandemic was coming and that bats could be a reservoir of such viruses (bats, and their viruses, are a fascinating story for another day...). There is a wealth of writing on this subject dating back decades. Our best way forward is to fund pandemic preparedness and research of viruses that may emerge from non-human hosts. Everyone makes mistakes. We all succeed when we learn from them.
Dr. James Riggs is a professor of biology. He has secured more than $3 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct biomedical research and has trained dozens of Rider undergraduate science majors. His research interests include immunology, aging and microbiology.