Coronavirus infections outside of mainland China have been on the rise over the past few weeks, with nearly thirty percent of all reported cases now having occurred outside of China’s borders. 607 cases have been reported in the United States, resulting in 22 deaths, with 19 of those fatalities having occurred in Washington State alone. Case numbers in France, Germany, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Spain are now in the thousands, with 12 other countries, including the US, now reporting hundreds of cases each. Thankfully, more than half of the people reported to have been infected since the COVID-19 outbreak started have recovered from their illnesses, although the World Health Organization (WHO) now estimates that the fatality rate of the disease may be as high as 4 percent.
Here’s a breakdown of the most recent numbers: to date, 105,561 cases of COVID-19 infections have been reported worldwide, with 58,354 of those cases—55.3 percent—having recovered. The worldwide death toll stands at 3,555, with 485 of those fatalities having occurred outside of mainland China. In China, the disease appears to have run its course, as the number of reported infections appears to be slowing, while the number of cases are quickly growing in the rest of the world.
On March 07, the Italian government imposed a quarantine on 16 million people in the country’s northern regions, where 9,172 people have become infected from an outbreak centered on the Lombardy region. 463 deaths linked to the coronavirus have occurred in Italy thus far. (Update: as of March 10, the Italian government has extended the lockdown to include the entire country, affecting 60.5 million citizens.)
The number of reported cases in the United States has risen to 607, with 22 having died from the infection. The US is among a number of countries, including China, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, that are showing evidence of community transmission of the disease.
Unfortunately, a shortage of COVID-19 tests has prevented widespread testing in the US, meaning that health officials are unsure as to the extent of the disease.
“Until we do such things… we have no clue how widespread this virus is in America. We have absolutely no idea,” according to health policy analyst and journalist Laurie Garrett, referring to the need for a more comprehensive testing regimen.
Although initial estimates assumed that COVID-19 had only a 1 percent death rate, the WHO recently increased that number to between 3 and 4 percent. Out of those that contract the disease, 80 percent only have mild flu-like symptoms, or are asymptomatic altogether; 15 percent suffer severe symptoms and require oxygen, and 5% are critical infections, requiring ventilation.
Researchers are racing against time to develop both effective antiviral treatments and vaccines to combat COVID-19. A host of currently-available antiviral drugs are currently being tested to see if they are effective against the coronavirus, including darunavir, an HIV/AIDS treatment, and remdesivir, typically used to fight ebola. Vaccines, a more complicated medicine designed to provide immunity to the virus, won’t be available for some time, although calls for Seattle-area volunteers to test a vaccine being developed by Moderna Therapeutics have already been issued.
Although there have been many comparisons made between COVID-19 and the seasonal flu, there are numerous differences between the two that are worth addressing, as well as the wide range of misconceptions that are being circulated about the virus.
COVID-19 vs. Seasonal Flu:
Although the flu and COVID-19 are both caused by viruses and present similar symptoms, the similarities between the two diseases mostly end there; the rate of transmission and fatality rate are key differences between the two diseases, and are important factors when dealing with a potential coronavirus infection.
To express how easily a virus might potentially spread, health researchers use the virus’s “basic reproduction number,” or R0 (pronounced “R-nought”), a number that directly represents the predicted number of people that a single individual infected with that virus can infect. In the case of the seasonal flu, that number is typically 1.3, meaning that without precautions, an individual with the flu has a chance to infect an average of 1.3 other people. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, has an estimated R0 of between 2.0 and 2.5, making it somewhere between 50 and 90 percent more virulent than the flu. SARS-CoV-2’s estimated R0 will continue to evolve as the virus’s spread unfolds, as researchers continue to collect data on the new virus.
In an average season, the flu has a worldwide fatality rate of 0.1 percent, meaning that out of every 1,000 people infected with the virus, 1 will die either from complications caused by the infection, or from the disease itself; bear in mind this number also includes infections and deaths amongst populations with inadequate access to health care and nutrition, making it more likely for them to succumb to a disease that the developed world oftentimes takes for granted. COVID-19, however, has an estimated death rate somewhere between 3 and 4 percent, meaning that COVID-19 is at least thirty to forty times deadlier than the flu.
Compared to more deadly diseases such as smallpox (30%) or SARS (10%), COVID-19 is still a readily survivable disease for most people. However, the risk of complications related to the disease rises with both the age of the individual and any pre-existing health conditions, with the death rate amongst patients over 80 years of age rising to nearly 15 percent, and 10.5 percent for those with cardiovascular disease. It is important to remember that even if you’re not part of a high-risk group, you probably know someone who is, making prevention of the spread of COVID-19 all the more imperative; despite the virus’s relatively low fatality rate compared to those responsible for past pandemics, that 3-4 percent of the world’s population represents between 226 and 301 million people, the equivalent to 70 to 90 percent of the population of the US.
Face Masks Can Help—to a Point:
The use of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a complicated issue, because while they can be useful in lowering an individual’s chance of contracting (or spreading) the virus somewhat, their effectiveness is not ideal. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can still be transmitted through the eyes, and can be carried by tiny aerosols of fluid that can pass through the fabric of a face mask.
However, masks can catch larger droplets that the virus might be hitching a ride on, and the presence of a mask will prevent an individual from touching their mouth or nose, an unconscious habit that we perform dozens of time a day without realizing it. While masks are not a sure-fire way of avoiding a COVID-19 infection, some studies suggest that wearing one appears to be five times more effective than wearing no barrier at all.
The Coronavirus Is a Man-Made Bioweapon That Was Released From a Lab:
Various conspiracy theories along these lines have been circulating in both China and the US, with netizens in each country blaming the other nation for what they believe to be the release of SARS-CoV-2—either as a deliberate or unintentional act—on their home country. Officially, both countries renounced the development of bioweapons decades ago, due to the problems presented by such a form of warfare outweighing their potential battlefield advantages; however, the fear of other countries making their own bioweapons has prompted numerous nations, including China and the US, to institute their own biological defense organizations, despite a lack of evidence that their potential opponents are actually preparing such weapons.
Although it is impossible to say for sure, all studies conducted so far on the genetic structure of the coronavirus indicate that it followed a series of natural mutations from its suspected origin in bats, as opposed to having been altered through a gene-editing technique such as CRISPR. Like many viruses, SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus, and RNA-based viruses tend to mutate quickly and often, due to RNA’s lack of proofreading safeguards that are present in DNA. SARS-CoV-2’s close similarity to both the SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV viruses (responsible for the 2002-03 SARS and 2012-13 MERS outbreaks, respectively) is also an indicator that its origins are natural.
The rumor that the coronavirus was manufactured is further complicated by the misconception that the virus’s genome was found to contain DNA from the HIV virus. This misunderstanding arises from the discovery that the SARS-CoV-2 virus underwent a “HIV-like mutation” in regards to its ability to bind to a host cell; this does not mean that the virus actually contains HIV DNA, but that a mutation it experienced is similar to one that HIV itself underwent at some point, resulting in a more effective spike protein that latches on to a human host cell more readily than its SARS predecessor.