Coronavirus Pandemia: Facts and “Fiction”

In this blog post I will discuss about the current situation of the coronavirus pandemia and how misinformation and the so-called “fake news” is really a problem for our societies and the world in general. For those who follow my posts and read them, last month I wrote about a cousin I’ve lost in the North of Brazil for this disease (check the blog post here). My family members and his family like several other families in the world are still overcoming the sadness and trying to understand what is going on. The questions I currently see are: Why? How? When we will get a ‘cure”, an efficient treatment and/or a vaccine? The fact is that there is no “magic bullet” yet, especially when the pandemia is in the current stage. Today, the latest numbers are that at least 10.7 Million people were infected worldwide and at least 515,000 people died of complications of the coronavirus infection (for more information check the trustful website from the John’s Hopkin’s University here). Well, first of all, as a scientist I get lots of questions about the virus, how it infects people and mainly why it kills people in a current rate of 5-10% depending on the place, country and/or region. First of all, what kills is not the virus itself: the viral infection in the respiratory tract, especially the lungs (other organs are infected too, it has been already reported) causes a hyper-reaction from the immune system of the person that destroys the lung cells and open the “doors” to bacterial infections such as the one that causes pneumonia. Thus, what kills is the “auto-immune” response to the virus and not the viral agent COVID19. In this context, the age, sex, health, presence of a complex disease (diabetes, cancer, etc) will be important factors that will affect morbidity. In addition, since everyone is genetically different, even in immune response to viruses, this is probably why we see young people dying, not just elderlies. One thing is for sure: my generation and probably the one before me (my parents) and the next ones never lived through a situation like this. That is why now more than ever, the use of correct and trustful information are very important. Let’s get to 3 main important points that I would like to explore as facts and fiction: 1) Current tests that are being advertised everywhere. There are several types of tests that work very differently. The most common and fast is to check for antibodies against the virus or against proteins of the virus in the plasma of people, that is a fact. However, testing negative doesn’t mean that you are free to go outside without a mask and live like nothing is happening. I’ve had a very interesting personal experience last week since I went to the pharmacy where these “fast” tests are being offered and people have to pay (not cheap by the way…). When I was in the line waiting to get my medication, a lady got a negative result for the test and jumped saying to the pharmacist: “so now I am free and can go outside without a mask!”. The pharmacist very gently told her: “Well, please understand that having a negative result for this test doesn’t mean that you could get the virus or that you’ve already got it and have no antibodies against it”. The lady turned to him very angry and said; “Then why I am doing this test and paying for it!”. This is the main problem right now: people do not understand that the tests are not a way of “getting out and living free”. The other tests that are more specific for the virus such as the “famous” PCR are more expensive and laborious. Not a lot of people can afford to do it. The summary in this first example is that I do not trust any of these tests since we are still understanding how the virus works. So why bother?; 2) Treatments for the virus. Fictions: there is no “magic bullet” yet like I’ve wrote above and the treatments are much more complex than “advertised”. It is and will be a combination of drugs to block the hyper-immune reaction, block the virus and also antibiotics for the worst phase when people get pneumonia and/or other bacterial infections. So, please people do not believe any of these “miracle drugs” being advertised everywhere, especially in social media and last 3) the vaccine: well there are at least 140 vaccines in several stages of tests (please check this article from “The Guardian” for more information) and just 2 of them are in the latest phases of the clinical trials. There is another problem here with facts x fiction: a vaccine against a virus is not easy to develop. For example, we still do not have an efficient vaccine against HIV till this day (and HIV is an RNA virus such as the coronavirus; the only difference is the cells they infect and the way they spread). Vaccines could be of the attenuated viral particle, proteins of the virus, nucleic acids of the virus, etc. I believe that we need to be pragmatic: it will take time to get an efficient vaccine. Several groups are working toward this goal, that is a fact. However, let’s be “real”: it will take some time, maybe a year or so. The main fact right now that I think everyone in the world should believe is that the only way to fight this pandemia is avoid being infected by the virus. How? Social distancing and isolation, unfortunately. People working in healthcare and services that are essential need to use masks and be careful. There is nothing else we can do right now. Last, but not least, I wrote before that “Science is Broken: How, Why and When?” (see my blog post from some time ago) and other critics to how the scientific system is in its medieval times. My hope is that people in general, now being directly affected, see how important science is and give scientists such as myself and several others some respect. I also hope that the system changes. In this type of situation I see people, even my family members telling me: why no scientist was studying this type of virus? Why is it so difficult to overcome this? I tell them in an ironic way: ask the governments and the academic system that does not work for the people. Finally, based on all the facts I have been reading and know until now my last piece of advice to everyone reading this post is to stay home and take the measures that prevent the infection (use masks, disinfect everything, etc), independent on what governments and other people tell you or you see in social media. The fact is there is a pandemia, we do not completely understand the coronavirus, there is no treatment and no vaccine 100% yet. Thus, take care of yourself and people you love. Let’s try to overcome this pandemia together (but socially isolated…) with facts and not anecdotal information that we get every day through the media. And most important: let’s stay mentally stable and sane. This is my message to all.

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