And then what? That is the question that will remain when we finally flatten that curve. The novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19 is being combated by isolating it — and isolating people — to preventing its spread. This is the equivalent of cutting gaps through forests to prevent fires from spreading. The trouble is, that doesn’t make the isolated patches of woodland any less flammable. This is the same in principle with the way social distancing is stopping COVID-19. It does not make those who escape it any less vulnerable to acquiring it if they are somehow exposed to the virus in the future.
This means that unless a vaccine is developed or immunity somehow takes hold in big enough proportions of the population, people will have to continue to practice some degree of social distancing long after the virus had been eradicated. It could also mean that aggressive disinfection procedures will have to continue in public facilities and people will have to continue washing their hands frequently.
This is a disturbing future for us. Aggressive routine disinfection and excessive cleanliness will likely have the unintended consequence of making our immune systems weaker. Indeed, aggressive disinfection and frequent hand washing may help prevent COVID-19 from resurfacing or spreading further. However, such measures also kill less-harmful viruses and bacteria that contribute to keeping our immune systems on their toes.
An antiseptic environment is also not a stable one. Maintaining it is hard work. It requires tight controls on mobility and the ingrain of behaviours that run counter to human nature — less intimacy, increased distrust, and higher walls between communities. It will spell the end of “porous borders” and set multiculturalism back decades. Even more important to consider is that the novel coronavirus may be mutating rapidly.
The new coronavirus is an RNA virus: a collection of genetic material packed inside a protein shell. RNA viruses, like the flu and measles, are more prone to changes and mutations compared with DNA viruses, such as herpes, smallpox, and human papillomavirus (HPV).
The good news is that scientists remain optimistic that a vaccine against COVID-19 would be effective. According to Dr. Mark Schleiss, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and investigator with the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota;
When we finally have a COVID-19 vaccine, it will most likely protect people against the “vast majority of circulating COVID-19 strains for the foreseeable mutations,” Schleiss said.
Even if random mutations do occur down the road, Schleiss believes the worst-case scenario is that we’ll see some breakthrough infections, but we wouldn’t have breakthrough life-threatening disease.
Nonetheless, there is still much about the disease that remains unknown and there is cause for concern for a reported rising number of reinfection cases…
About 51 patients classed as having been cured in South Korea have tested positive again, the CDC said in a briefing on Monday. Rather than being infected again, the virus may have been reactivated in these people, given they tested positive again shortly after being released from quarantine, said Jeong Eun-kyeong, director-general of the Korean CDC.
News of success in controlling the disease in some parts of the world are reassuring. However, a flat curve will not necessarily mean things can get back to normal anytime soon. It could mean that we will have to embrace a new “normal” — at least until scientists get up to a better understanding of what makes the COVID-19 virus tick.
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