The Origins and Present Status of COVID-19

by Brianna Coffey

Editor’s note: Use the links below for updated numbers. The numbers in this story are as of March 16.

The coronavirus began as a problem on the other side of the world. Now it is a global problem, one that has turned typical college students into online students, shut down large and small gatherings and changed everyone’s routine.

As of March 16, the World Health Organization reports 168,000 confirmed cases and over 6,600 deaths associated with COVID-19. The World Health Organization has officially granted it pandemic status.

The virus is most prevalent where it began in mainland China, in which over 81,000 cases have been reported, followed by Italy with close to 25,000 cases and Iran at almost 15,000. The United States ranks ninth with over 1,600 cases and 41 deaths. Ohio has reported 50 cases with a concentration in the northeast part of the state.

Other countries that have been significantly impacted are South Korea, Spain, France, Germany and Switzerland. Over 1,000 cases have been reported in 13 countries, and the virus has appeared in more than 150 countries. Dr. Zach Jenkins, associate professor of pharmacy practice, said these numbers may not accurately reflect all who have coronavirus.

“What we don’t know is how many are affected that haven’t been tested,” Jenkins said. “So we’re probably going to see more outbreaks that just haven’t been caught yet.”

Nonetheless, several schools are responding to the virus threats. In Ohio, several schools have announced transitions to online and closures. Cedarville University has elected to move to online learning through March 27.

In a campus-wide email, President Dr. Thomas White said, “Cedarville prepares proactively for situations of this nature and has a campus pandemic preparedness and response plan in place that addresses prevention, care, communication, and safety measures as well as the many academic and student support implications that could arise in any situation like this.”

The world is reacting. The stock market has fluctuated wildly, falling as much as 7.8 points in one day. Travel bans have been imposed on various countries, as well as flight restrictions and domestic policy changes. According to Dr. Glen Duerr, associate professor of international studies, the reporting numbers and details of COVID-19 are shrouded in a haze of uncertainty due to the lack of reliable information.

“Because the Chinese communist party is over it, we are unlikely to get the full information,” he said.

Experts around the world are all facing the same questions, with limited access to reliable information. This is largely due to the fact that this sickness is a novel virus, meaning it is a new infection.

Coronavirus refers to a larger group of viruses common among animals, which is why the name COVID-19 is used as it is specific to this strain. This particular coronavirus is also zoonotic, meaning it can be spread from animals to humans. Many theories for the cause of COVID-19 point to bats as the root of the problem, stating that the disease is passed from bats to humans.

Experts are seeing many similarities to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SAURS) epidemic in 2003. Comparably, SAURS was also spread through bat to human contact. Another outbreak that occurred several years ago and bears similarities to the coronavirus was Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). This virus was transferred from camels to humans.

“There’s a lot of rumors about other causes,” said Jenkins, “but animals seem to be what most authorities are leaning towards.”

The reported epicenter for the disease is a seafood market in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in China, so the connection with bats may appear ambiguous. Jenkins explains the widespread belief that “with bats specifically … it has to do with fecal matter” as they interfered with the goods being sold. This seafood market was reportedly closed after the first few coronavirus cases in China.

What with the drastic measures being taken to prevent the virus from spreading, the severity of the alarm being raised worldwide, and the vast number of cases reported throughout our planet, fear and anxiety over this epidemic are rising. However, before falling into panic, one must first understand what exactly the coronavirus is, what the illness entails, and the actual dangers and death rate of the sickness. There has been a drastically greater amount of coronavirus cases than was seen in the SAURS and MERS breakouts, but the percentage of those coronavirus cases that have actually resulted in fatalities are far less than what was seen in the other two epidemics.

“The good news is that it’s not virulent,” Duerr said. “Three to four percent die, which is still a high number, but it is largely concentrated on those over 50 that already tend to suffer every winter with influenza … it’s not really mentioned, but influenza is one of the biggest killers in our society for those over 65.”

While the severity of COVID-19 is indeed cause for caution and there have been many serious cases that have resulted in thousands of lost lives, Jenkins believes that “this is just going to be a bad flu; this is not the end of all things.”

The New York Times reported, however, that the deadliness of the flu is not cause to discount COVID-19. Rather, it is reason to keep another contagious respiratory disease from spreading to the elderly and the immunocompromised. The flu began in 1918 with similar infection rates and grew substantially.

“The good news is that the percentage of those dying is low,” Duerr reassures, “and that if you get the coronavirus, you’re likely to survive, again being under the age of 50 and with an immune system that’s not compromised in some way.”

However, COVID-19 has been found to be more contagious than the flu. While those sick with COVID-19 infect roughly 2.2 people, flu victims only infect about 1.3.

Chinese doctor Wi Wenliang was the first to raise the alarm and start spreading word about the virus, but he was silenced by the authorities who forced him to sign a document stating that he would stop spreading the “rumor.” Soon after, he contracted the virus himself and died. He is now being renowned as a hero, and according to Duerr, his silencing cost the world significant forewarning time.

“The information would have gotten out weeks earlier had he not been muzzled,” Duerr said.

A Rolling Stone article records a commenter’s tribute to the doctor on the Chinese social platform Weibo: “We will not forget the doctor who spoke up about an illness that was called a rumor,” he said. “The only thing (we can do) is to not forget.”

In an effort to stop the virus from spreading, countries like Russia have led to some strong attempts to limit human contact with those who are infected, such as using drones to patrol the streets and to implement quarantine. They have also employed facial recognition technology to identify those who are not complying with health regulations. China also shut down 17 cities in an effort to stop the spreading. Jenkins expressed a nuanced opinion about these measures.

“While there is a lot of concern (about these practices), we can say without a doubt that this has slowed the rate of transmission,” he said.

As far as what we can do to guard against contracting the virus ourselves, Jenkins provided advice.

“Hand hygiene and limiting our exposure to sick individuals are the best things we can do,” Jenkins said. “We’d be saying the same thing during a flu pandemic. The difference is, we have treatments available (for the flu).”

Though these epidemics are widespread and contagious, sometimes they are beneficial to improve public health systems and raise awareness about the spread of disease.

“One of the reasons why hand sanitizer is ubiquitous today is because of SAURS in 2003,” Duerr said.

Medical professionals around the world are urging citizens to take necessary precautions but to avoid resorting to a panic. This does not detract from the devastation this virus has caused due to a rapidly rising rate of victims.

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