• Joe

Coronavirus, what is it?

Coronavirus has been around for a long time. This is a fact that few people understand or appreciate. Only its new strain has caused the most panic, I think, because of its higher mortality rate and its being easily transmissible. What is it, though? Have scientific researchers pinned down exactly what the coronavirus is?

Someone might say, "who cares what it is?", because that's just a philosophical or theoretical question. Whatever it is, it's killing people. I get it. But here's why I take the question to be an important one? First, if we don't know what the coronavirus is, how are going to be able to identify it using a test? Tests are imperfect measures we employ to determine whether we have a condition or illness. False negatives and false positives are a possibility with any test. We have to understand what coronavirus is to determine whether the tests we're using on it is identifying the one that has been killing people.

Second, if we don't know what the coronavirus is, then how do we know that we're not ill with the flu, a respiratory infection, or bad cold? I am not doubting that coronavirus is bad. Suppose in the next few days I become ill with symptoms that are consistent with those that we have heard are the symptoms of the coronavirus. I am, of course, given all the hype surrounding it, going to believe that I have the coronavirus. That's confusing because upper respiratory infections come with the same symptoms that coronavirus does. If I do not know the markers for coronavirus, I will misdiagnose myself and, maybe, consume resources that should have gone to someone else who has it.

This brings me to the third question regarding the nature of the coronavirus. If we don't know what the coronavirus is, then we will use valuable medical resources for a condition that is not coronavirus. Few people seem to understand that medical research and health care is expensive--whether we have a socialised system or not. Consuming valuable resources is bad since it takes those resources away from an area or region that may be more adversely affected. Medical and health care resources are more scarce in some areas. That is a fact. Unfortunately, the areas where such resources are scarce tend to be ones populated by underrepresented groups. The question over racial disparity and the coronavirus arose recently (here; here; here). Just because one has symptoms that are coronavirus-like and just because one has access to health care doesn't mean that one should use those resources. Health care, unfortunately, is more accessible by the privileged, so it is incumbent upon them to act more responsibly in the name of equity and fairness. Don't consume the resource unless you absolutely must, and you absolutely must only when you're in an emergency situation. Allow others to have access to healthcare by staying home and staying safe.

Finally, if we don't know what the coronavirus is, then how do we know that the test that has shown I am positive for coronavirus is the current strain of coronavirus that is so deadly? No resource that I have come across shows that the coronavirus test is reliable at detecting the current strain of the virus over any other strain. If the coronavirus is as common as the common cold, for example, then it may be difficult to distinguish the bad strain from the less bad strain. If the two cannot be distinguished, then it is possible for one to have tested positive for coronavirus but who does not have the bad strain. A microbiologist friend of mine pointed out that the test distinguishes between COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-19) and other strains such as 229E, NL63, OC43, or HKU1, but, as was pointed out by her, there may be a nearby strain that hasn't been distinguished by virologists, such that its effects in individuals are less devastating than the strain that could lead to death. That means the tests we're employing are useless; it also may explain why asymptomatic people are testing positive for COVID-19--they may be carrying a strain of the virus that is nearby but that isn't the one that leads to death.

So, what is coronavirus? Other than that it is a "novel" illness that affects the respiratory system, we do not know what the novel coronavirus is. Medical researchers, i.e., virologists, microbiologists, epidemiologists, are working together to figure out what it is, but properly identifying it is going to take time. Let me point to some of the literature on it.

Probably the best information available on the coronavirus comes from Johns Hopkins University and its Applied Physics Laboratory. One may want to watch the video series here for more information. In it, a virologist explains what the coronavirus is and how it may be distinguished from other coronaviruses. Other health professionals weigh in, too, with respect to its transmission and what to expect with the higher number of people infected. Also, there is the CDC website for coronavirus (here). It, too, has some helpful information on the coronavirus.

It would be wise to steer clear of news media's interpretation of what coronavirus is because journalists may call upon experts to explain what coronavirus is, but reporters themselves who end up writing the story have little knowledge of science, let alone microbiology or virology to provide accurate testimony on the coronavirus.


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