The Pandemic Puzzle: Coronavirus effect through my eyes, as a student of Bioscience and Bioinformatics

Eshan.

71st post.

After more than a year, I am writing. I never thought I would be writing on topics like this with whom even I am not completely familar with.

But here we are, fighting a new pandemic, with newfound fears every single day. These days, news on Twitter and YouTube keep telling me how normal life is getting devastated due to this new outbreak and now a pandemic. I am a part of this effect, as Tezpur University has suspended all exams and classes for the next few days and has asked all of us to vacate our hostels by 18 March.

The thing about pandemics is that they have a physiological and psychological effect on us as a species. Without studying the aspects of a pandemic completely, we tend to panic more than we should and commit the wrong acts which lead to more dire consequences. The whole community is thrown into chaos, because it hasn’t figured out how to combat the root cause of the pandemic.

As I will be home for these two weeks (or maybe more, depending on what the situation is), I thought to do some reading on this pandemic and give you the full scenario of this pandemic. This will be based on whatever I have read so far and what my personal experience says. I will try to keep it as simple as possible, and I hope it helps you also.

Coronavirus isn’t just one virus; it’s a family of viruses that goes for our respiratory system. There were 6 pathogenic members in this family before this pandemic, namely-

  1. SARS-CoV
  2. MERS-CoV
  3. HCoV-OC43
  4. HCoV-HKU1
  5. HCoV-NL63
  6. HCoV-229E

You might know about the first two from the SARS and MERS outbreaks in 2002 and 2012 respectively. MERS occured in Middle East, while SARS started from, you guess it, China. Both were contained very quickly then. The others are more or less responsible for your seasonal common cold.

The newest killer member, SARS-CoV-2 or n-COV-2019, having its origin in Wuhan, China (again), is however, out of control as of now. If you check out the WHO dashboard for this pandemic, you will see how exponentially it is growing in terms of infection. Sure, many will say that the death rate is low and only the aged people are dying. They might as well say, “I am not gonna die, I am healthy and young.” Some might go on to say that it’s a bioweapon designed by China which accidentally got leaked out. Some might say it’s all a conspiracy and people are dying because of God’s wrath.

Let me tell you; viruses are real. Their effects are real. Their study is real. And they are deadly among all things. You do remember that viruses fill up the gap between the boundaries of living and non-living, don’t you? They have the capacity to infect every living thing you know and you can name. Humans, Dogs, Cats, Plants, and even microbes; that deadly they are. They are the first obligate parasites and may very well be the last to be in existence. And they cause a hell lot of diseases. They are much smaller than the average microbe and very tough to even detect in the first place.

Okay, back to the Coronavirus family. They are zoonotic, meaning that they get transmitted between humans and other animals. The common signs of infection for most of the Coronaviruses are-

  1. Respiratory symptoms
  2. Fever
  3. Cough
  4. Shortness of breath
  5. Pneumonia

More severe consequences of the infection can be Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (which is what SARS means), kidney failure, and death.

The problem with the newest member isn’t its lethality; it’s the after-effects that come after the infection of the novel coronavirus. The incubation period is long, and its infection rate is higher than we can handle. Statistics say that people of old age and those with certain kinds of diseases are the ones most prone to the virus. Yet when we say that, we are often ignoring the fact that there will be thousands of carriers for a person severely affected by the virus.

Look at these people from South Korea. Take inspiration. Wear the mask, not to be protected, but to stop infecting others.

Due to travel between international borders, we failed to contain this virus to one or more localized regions in the first place. When the outbreak happened in China, several other countries weren’t keeping an eye on it and were instead occupied with their local matters. International travel kept happening and no screening/low screening was conducted at the borders. Only when the number of infection cases started spiking outside China was when other countries started noticing the effect of this virus.

Now you might ask why we haven’t been able to make a vaccine for this virus in the first place. Since there are 6 more Coronaviruses, the medications for those should be suitable enough for the new one too; that’s what you should never be thinking for viruses. Prescribing antibiotics for a microbe infection is easier because those microbes are easy to be cultured and studied, and they are prokaryotic (having no defined nucleus, etc.). They will grow by themselves on the culture medium because they are, after all, cells. Viruses require live cells to grow, and this includes our cells. This is why there is a need of extra precaution for virus culture. You don’t want the one trying to save you to die on you, do you?

The thing I want to point out my fingers to is the preventive measures, especially for COVID-19. Right now, there is no cure or a vaccine against this virus, and hence whoever gets it has to go through its full course. Let’s just say that we still don’t know the mechanism by which it infects our lung cells. Even when we will come to know that, we won’t be finding the anti-viral very soon. People will just have to survive the pandemic to become immune to SARS-CoV-2.

Various health organisations have provided with the following precautionary guidelines for general people:

  1. To maintain social distancing
  2. To wash our hands with soap or alcohol-based sanitizer frequently
  3. To not touch our eyes, ears and nose with our hands consciously
  4. Use of masks when either we are in a highly crowded place
  5. Practice respiratory hygeine
  6. Seeking medical care in the earliest of symptoms and staying at home
  7. Staying informed on the latest developments about COVID-19

If you think following these seven might be tough for you, you should be depressed to know that as someone studying the Biosciences, I have had the chance to know at least around 30 precautions so far just for working with various non-pathogenic microbes, ranging from device handling to wearing protective gear and a lot more. On top of that, we need to be aware that we could still get infected by those microbes we work with.

Take all of that in, and now quadruple everything, that’s how intense things are in a Virology lab. Your slightest mistake can cause you an adverse effect on your body.

What perplexes me the most about this pandemic is the most underrated cause behind its exponential spread: Human ignorance. In this century itself, we have witnessed the outbreak of two other Coronaviruses, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV and I just read in my local newspaper recently that 5 years ago, scientists had warned about a new viral outbreak from bats. Considering how many viral epidemics we have seen so far, it surprises me as to why there hasn’t been much funding for R&D in this field and why most people still ignore the basic principles of hygeine. Just some months ago, one could watch news about protests and communal riots all over the world regarding different political issues and now there’s nothing about those things. I wonder how do the different Medical Organisations around the world expect the countries to work together when there’s so much tension between them. Just observe how this year has gone by in the last 3 months.

World War 3 was a joke made at the beginning of this year. Now it’s a reality. People are dying for reasons they don’t understand. Countries are going under lockdown. People are getting quarantined at homes due to their own fear. As I write, markets, schools, and god-knows-what-else is closing down. People are stockpiling, the roads are getting silent. We are becoming afraid to touch even ourselves (I don’t care in what sense you take that in).

The most positive thing about any pandemic is that it brings communities closer despite being so far from each other. They remind us that no matter however we divide ourselves, we are still one giant species and we need to work together to survive the harsh conditions on this planet… which ironically is because of our existence.

Maintaining our existence in this existence causality paradox is the essence of the Pandemic Puzzle.

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