The first thing to really understand is how this virus equates to other viruses we have heard about in the headlines. There are many historical viruses that have already earned the title of most deadliest. What makes the Coronavirus “potentially” more dangerous or more likely to become out of control than Ebola, Hunta, Smallpox, or Lassa? Ebola, for instance, has a death rate of approximately 90%. Comparatively, the latest strain of the Coronavirus, COVID-19, appears to have a mortality rate of 3.4%. Out of nearly 81,000 reported cases, there were only 2,760 resulting deaths at the time of this video.
The Coronaviruses are potentially more dangerous because of their ability to spread and their modes of transmission. High mortality rate viruses usually have an extreme symptomatic period. If you see someone with Ebola, you immediately know that person is sick, and you instantly take personal precautions. As I’ll discuss a little later, this virus seems to be spreading when people are not showing signs of being sick and possibly not just person-to-person but off of surfaces you might touch. It’s potential to spread across the globe at an alarming rate is starting to be seen.
The nature of this virus lends itself to pandemic potential
Coronaviruses have greater potential for being transmitted. They are “zoonotic”, which means they are transmitted between animals and people. There are many coronaviruses carried in the animal kingdom, but these viruses haven’t mutated in a way where they may be transmitted to humans. Recently, there have been a number of cases of “dog flu”, H3N2 reported in Los Angeles; however, in the many years of outbreaks of this virus, there has never been a transmission of the strain from dog to human. So, while this is scary for Fido, we humans are safe for now. Though the original transmission of a Coronavirus may be from an animal to a human, the more common form after this original transmission has occurred is from person-to-person.
Coronaviruses can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to severe diseases like SARS, more commonly known as the Avian Flu, or MERS, more commonly known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. While symptoms of one type of Coronavirus may be light, just like your light case of the flu, another type might have more deadly potential because of the traumatic stress it can put on the lungs or other critical organs. At the early onset of the first symptoms of a Coronavirus, a person may feel they just have a slight cold. Thinking this, they may go about their normal day in an attempt to power through. They might board that plane for that business trip, grab those items at the store they need, grab a bit out to eat, or even go to that event or movie they had scheduled. All the while, and though they feel like they’re not really coming down with anything, they could be potentially shedding the virus and spreading it to those they come in contact with. So, the less deadly Coronavirus has a greater spreadability rate because of the range and longevity of the host. And while the mortality rate may not be as high, it’s important to remember that the Spanish Flu was caused by an H1N1 virus– a type of Coronavirus. It is estimated that 500 million people, which was a full ⅓ of the Earth’s population, became infected. Deaths were estimated to be at least 50 million. So, while the mortality rate was 1 in 10 versus 9 in 10, and sanitation, containment, and medicines were not as advanced as maybe we are today, the spreadability and rate of transmission were astronomical.
So, the first biggest sign that a Coronavirus may get out of control is the rate and spread of the virus compared to other viruses. Coronaviruses have reached pandemic proportions in the past and will do so again. The many variations of the Coronaviruses and the generally slow onset contribute to this particular type of virus’s potential pandemic spread.
Specific to the latest strain of the Coronavirus, COVID-19 or Wuhan virus, and the reason that it could be the Coronavirus strain which could get out of control is that it is showing signs that the infected host may be asymptomatic for a long time.
The asymptomatic period is longer than average
A longer than average period of infected individuals being asymptomatic, meaning they show no signs of actually being sick, could lead to a longer period of infectious spreading of the virus. During this asymptomatic period, people are unknowingly spreading the virus as they travel through their everyday lives. Any close person-to-person contact like public transportation, events, even sharing tight spaces like elevators, can result in an individual shedding the virus to another person. You can imagine an infected person simply wiping their mouth or rubbing their eyes and pressing the same elevator button seconds before you do. It was originally thought that the incubation period of the virus was an uncommonly long 14 days. There are reports now that this period may be longer. Some viruses do not really spread during this incubation period. They actually spread once the virus has become full-blown in the host and they are actively sneezing, sniffling, coughing, vomiting, hemorrhaging, or worse.
As with all coronaviruses, it is generally accepted that a person is at their most infectious when they are symptomatic, which is when they are showing active signs of infection. There are multiple instances with COVID-19, however, where multiple infections are occurring without the symptoms being exhibited. So, one of the biggest indicators that COVID-19 or some other form of Coronavirus may get out of control is when we have the asymptomatic spreading of the virus. When we see a sick individual, an individual who is symptomatic, we instinctively know to avoid them. When we see an asymptomatic virus carrier, we don’t know to avoid them, yet they could still be infecting us during this phase. This high rate of transmission during the asymptomatic, incubation period of the virus is a growing cause for concern with COVID-19 and other potential Coronaviruses.
Infected individuals spread the virus in less obvious ways
The third sign that a Coronavirus may get out of control is that infected individuals spread the virus in less obvious ways. Again, according to the CDC’s FAQ about the SARS virus, there were no instances “of SARS reported among persons exposed to a SARS patient before the onset of the patient’s symptoms.” With Coronavirus, COVID-19, on the other hand, we are seeing images and videos of seemingly healthy individuals, as in the Princess Cruises ship, who have tested positive for the virus but feel and look just fine. The alarming part of this is that a quarantined ship with active preventative measures in place still saw an exponential spread of the virus. While this could be that the incubation period actually far exceeds fourteen days and may also not allow for detection in the early phases of the virus, it very likely indicates that the virus is spreading in more novel ways than we have seen with other viruses.
When we see a person who is obviously sick, even when they say “it’s just a tickle in my throat,” we put our guard up a little. We might wash our hands or use a hand sanitizer. We might actually hold our breath a little around a sneezing or coughing person. When a virus, however, spreads in more novel ways, we don’t always put our guards up. What could lead to COVID-19 or some future version of Coronavirus getting out of control is that it may be spreading in less common ways. To understand this, you have to understand the ways in which viruses are known to pass from person-to-person. The main method of spreading is between people in close contact, within 6 feet, through respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets are expelled when a person sneezes or coughs. These droplets can be inhaled by another person, or they can land in the mouth, nose or eyes of another person. This is the most common method of transmission, which is why we quarantine people, ask them to stay home from work if they are sick and practice sterile protocols when caring for sick people, like sanitary wipes, hand washing, and using copious amounts of disinfectant in the air.
A less common method of transmission, however, is from contact with an infected surface or objects. This is typically thought to be because the virus cannot live outside the body for extended periods of time. In this method, a person may touch an object or surface an infected individual previously touched and then by touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes, unknowingly transmit the virus to themselves. If I dine at the same table as an infected person before me, I could potentially transmit the virus to myself in this manner. Money, doorknobs, even products from the shelves of grocery stores are all potential surfaces that may have been tainted by an asymptomatic person unknowingly spreading the virus as they, like you, go through their everyday routines. Imagine that cup of coffee just handed to you from that worker who feels just fine but will show symptoms of the Coronavirus in two weeks from now.
At the risk of being too technical here, I think it is important to note that the Coronaviruses are a threat beyond their rate, range, and methods of infection. The manner by which the virus replicates itself creates the possibility of it spinning out of control.
Potential mutability of the virus creates a constantly moving target
Essentially, viruses work in similar ways. They are biological agents that reproduce in the cells of a living host. Let us simplify this whole process and make it as unscientific as we can, so anyone can understand it. There are six overlapping stages of a virus’s life cycle: attachment, penetration, uncoating, replication, assembly, and release. If the virus was a stranger and your body was your house, it would be like a stranger seeing your house, entering your house, taking off his coat, going through all your clothes and cutting them up, then reassembling all your clothes into more copies of his coat, then blowing up your house and, thereby, flinging the new coats complete with new strangers in them throughout your neighborhood. The replication phase, that phase where the stranger creates more copies of its coat from your clothes, is the phase that sets the Coronavirus family apart from many viruses and gives it it’s wildcard pandemic possibilities. When a host is infected, the host produces thousands of identical copies of the original virus.
There are two types of replication – DNA and RNA. While DNA replication provides an exact match, RNA replication can be messier and might spin off a slightly different copy. Think of this as the difference between baking a loaf of bread by exactly following a recipe or baking a loaf of bread without an exact recipe and maybe too much salt. The first will provide you a light and fluffy loaf perfectly like the original. The second with just a slightly different amount of one ingredient would give you a loaf as hard as a rock. So, RNA replication provides the Coronavirus with the opportunity to mutate with each successive generation. To use our stranger analogy again, RNA duplication can create copies of the stranger’s coat out of the fabrics you have in your house. You might have more wool or raincoats in your house. The resulting coat copies would now have more protection from rain than the original coat. Whereas DNA replication would assume that the stranger is using the exact same fabrics and colored cloth to manufacture the coat and would be producing exactly identical coats. This creates the potential of a moving target for scientists. As they are developing vaccines for one generation of the virus, the virus may be continuing to mutate and, in so doing, may be resistant to newly developed vaccines. In other words, the vaccine may be looking for a particular cut and color of the coat to attack and eradicate, but through the less accurate and messy RNA duplication, the coat is a different color and cut, so it goes unrecognized by the body. It’s the burglar that changes clothes once it has been identified to elude identification by the police.
The flu shot is a great example of this. This year’s flu shot was made from last year’s strains of the flu viruses scientists were able to isolate. A new and sudden outbreak of a novel Coronavirus, as we have seen with COVID-19, could leave us with no effective and current vaccine. Add to that the potential high mutability of a Coronavirus, and we could have a rapidly mutating virus that proves to be highly resistant and constantly changing.
And the final reason the Coronavirus may get out of control has little to do with the virus’s natural rate of infection, types of spread, mortality rate, or mutability. It has everything to do with government responses to outbreaks.
Government mismanagement of the containment of the spread
There is no common and consistent government response to the spread of an infectious virus. There are common procedures that many governments share. There are common practices for containment and treatment of viruses; however, each government’s response and responsiveness is going to be different. While North Korea in its isolation may not have the virus get in their country, it’s not likely to travel outside its borders for the same reason. While China may shut down and quarantine entire cities or regions. India may not have the capability and infrastructure to contain a virus in a city like Mumbai or Delhi. While a European country could halt flights from infected countries as a deterrent to the spread of a virus whose epicenter is far away, countries with shared and porous borders could not contain a virus. An authoritarian government may choose draconian measures to contain a virus, while a democratic country may have a more difficult time keeping its civilian population informed and responsive.
With the COVID-19, Wuhan Coronavirus, we saw this inconsistency of procedures and protocol. The Chinese doctor who originally raised the red flags was silenced by the Chinese government, then later died of the same Coronavirus he was trying to raise the red flags about. In a more open and free society, could the doctor’s warning gotten out slightly ahead of the virus and allowed other countries more time to prepare? We will never know. Also, countless cases of the virus likely exist far beyond the reported numbers, as China has a proven history of understating serious problems within their country’s borders.
Japan had quarantined a cruise ship in its harbor but eventually released the passengers back to their own countries of origin. Health officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not want these 14 people who had tested positive for the new coronavirus to be flown back to the US, among hundreds of other uninfected people. Ignoring this sound advice, the CDC was overruled by officials at the US State Department, and the potentially infectious individuals flew back on a commercial flight, possibly reexposing the rest of the passengers on the flight.
195 early evacuees from the Wuhan province were quarantined at March AFB for over two weeks. Every day during that period, protestors protested outside the base. One group advocating for their immediate release and one group advocating for the quarantined to be removed from the country.
All of these are examples of how countries deal differently with the outbreak and how their populous reacts differently. What if, in a democratic country, quarantined individuals are forcibly freed by the populous? What if a person simply leaves quarantine because they feel fine and refuse to be held prisoner? What if, in a more authoritarian regime, a person flees to another province or country to escape potential imprisonment? While no unified effort can guarantee 100 percent containment of a pandemic outbreak, only a unified effort, and consistent protocols and procedures can build a solid wall against the spread. As weaknesses in the wall are determined, they can be reinforced throughout the world. Remember, the virus is not spreading in a linear fashion, so containment cannot be in just one way.
Just to sum up this blog on the 5 signs that the Coronavirus may get out of control, as with any Coronavirus, watch for these five things: One, does the virus lend itself to having pandemic potential? That is to say, is it subtle with its symptoms but has a high rate of spread? We think we already know the answer to that based on what is happening globally in the last week. Two, is the virus asymptomatic for a long period of time? In other words, are people getting infected without showing outward signs of infection? Again, this is looking to be the case. Third, is the virus seemingly spreading in novel ways? That is to say, is it spreading rapidly but people don’t appear to be sick? This could indicate that the virus is spreading via surface contact. Fourth, does the virus seem to be mutating? If several strains suddenly pop up that are just slightly different from each other, it could indicate that the virus is mutating faster than it can be isolated and vaccines can be developed for it. And finally, is the virus spreading faster than governments seem to be able to contain it, or are governments making decisions that are broadening exposure risks to the populous. If you’ve following the news, you know the answer to all these questions which points out why this situation could quickly spiral out of control.
In a future blog, we will talk more about the five hidden dangers of the virus that have nothing actually to do with catching the virus itself. Your chances of losing freedoms or your life may be as a result of an outbreak but not as a result of actually becoming infected with the virus. If you found this article informative and helpful, please feel free to like and share it with your friends, family, and community. If you have any comments or anything you would like to share, please feel free to leave a comment in the section below.