Oh, Mary

Going Viral

February 26, 2020
Roger van Oosten

In early November 2019, someone, nobody is sure if it was a man or woman, went to the seafood market in Huanan, China looking for something to bring home for dinner. The Huanan Market, which is in China’s Wuhan district, is also a wholesaler market, so it’s possible the shopper was looking for something to serve at a restaurant.  

The market offered seafood as well beef, pork, and wild caught meats such as monkey. The shopper likely handled many different products before leaving. They came for a meal, they left infected with an unknown virus.

Somewhere between seven and fourteen days later, that person died, but not before passing the virus on to many other people. 

The virus is known by the designation Covid-19but most people know it as the Wuhan coronavirus, and it is currently burning hot through a growing cross section of the human race. 

No one is sure what caused the spillover from the animal world to the human population. The likely vector was a bat. Bats have complex immune systems that allow them to carry viruses but not become infected by viruses. No one is sure how the bat infected the food supply at the market but there are several theories. Perhaps one of the animal carcasses for sale came from an animal that had been bitten by a bat, or some animal ate fruit that was contaminated by a bat, or it came from an actual bat, which are sometimes sold at the market. 

Coronaviruses represent a family of viruses that cause many illnesses, some minor, like the common cold, some dangerous, like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Covid-19. They come from animals and they sometimes jump into the human race. They are jumpers. Covid-19 jumped from store bought meat into a human and became an epidemic. 

Not much is known about the Wuhan coronavirus. It is new to science meaning it is “novel.” Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. But the Wuhan virus is showing signs that it can quickly turn into viral pneumonia. Viral pneumonia cannot be treated with antibiotics. This is very similar to SARS and the Spanish Influenza of the early 20th century. 

Human-to-human transmission of the disease has occurred. And, alarmingly, the virus is spread via airborne transmission, meaning the virus spreads to a healthy person’s lungs from an infected person’s coughs, sneezes and, possibly, breathing. So, it spreads like the common cold. There is also some belief that it can spread from person to person even if neither person has symptoms. Science refers to this as asymptomatic transmission and this is very dangerous, since people who don’t appear affected may be contagious. 

A lot of very important people at the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control are saying we are not dealing with a pandemic at the present time. A pandemic is defined as an epidemic that has spread across a large part of the planet to multiple continents or even worldwide. The Wuhan virus has been identified in more than 30 countries and has established itself in China, South Korea, Japan (where passengers on a cruise ship were forced to stay in their cabins for 14 days), Iran, and Italy. So, arguing about whether it is a pandemic is not really worth the effort. What is true is that the virus is on the move. The CDC has said it will soon establish itself in the United States. A virus anywhere in the world is an airline flight away from every other part of the world. It’s always a day away. 

The Wuhan virus is dangerous. It has affected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700 people. Those are scary numbers, but not horrifying numbers. By comparison, influenza killed 10,000 people in America last year. The Wuhan virus is following a familiar pattern of killing those most vulnerable in society, the very young, very old, the immunosuppressed. It’s dangerous, but it is not a species threatening event. 

However, this is the first global virus to threaten large populations on this scale since the rise of social media. That makes the Wuhan virus a different kind of threat. 

At this time, it’s important to remember this simple fact. No virus has ever been cured short of a vaccine. Now read that again. 

But in 2020, largely due to the singular ability of social media to spread lies and conspiracy theories, large segments of the U.S. population refuse to get vaccinated or refuse to vaccinate their children. 

Most people know the origins of the anti-vaccine conspiracy. They know it was first postulated by a man who needed money for his lab, made up a research paper out of whole cloth, was jailed for fraud, and completely discredited by scientists. Science has completely and factually debunked the myths around vaccines and pronounced that vaccines are safe and very, very important. Again, no virus has ever been stopped short of a vaccine. 

But some people can’t reject the lie. They are somehow forced to believe the fraud. So, they don’t use vaccines. And people, including many children, have died because of this powerful lie. Here at home, in Washington State, there was a recent outbreak of Whooping Cough, an ancient disease long ago wiped out by a vaccine, the MMR vaccine to be exact. There were deaths, deaths of children. This lie will kill more people moving forward. Sadly, this much is true. 

Science is currently working on a vaccine for the Wuhan virus. Trials on an early vaccine are underway. Soon, anti-vaxxers may have a life or death choice to make. 

For now, we must combat the threat of the Wuhan virus using time-tested methods. Wash your hands frequently, keep your hands away from your face, and practice social distancing, meaning stay away from people showing symptoms. The CDC recommends six feet of separation. 

It’s hard to predict the outcome of a viral epidemic. If it follows the course of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, it will likely get a little worse from this point on before it gets a little better. The best advice by far is to not panic. Instead, stay informed. Knowledge is always the best preventative.