Why are scientists baffled by the global COVID-19 outbreak?

Ernesto "Che" Guevara mural in Havana, Cuba. He was a physician revolutionary. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Ernesto "Che" Guevara mural in Havana, Cuba. He was a physician revolutionary. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Globally, there have been more than 10 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 500,000 deaths (WHO statistics).

It is estimated, more than one billion people face increased risk of severe COVID-19. Can we control this terrible pandemic? Hopefully, yes. But there are few challenges.

First challenge:

People with illnesses like diabetes, heart and lung problems and other medical conditions form 20 per cent of world’s population. This population is at increased risk of severe disease.

Analysing data from 188 countries (A. Clark et al. Lancet Glob. Health) the authors of this article estimate 1.7 billion people worldwide have an elevated risk of severe illness. The researchers also estimate nearly 350 million people – some of whom do not have underlying conditions – would require hospitalization if infected.

With these facts in mind, experts around the world are trying to assess how many high-risk people will need a vaccine once it is developed. The number will be in billions.

How many hospital beds will be needed? How many doctors, nurses and all other health care workers who are stressed and overworked will need care? Who will look after them?

Second challenge:

There are currently no drugs licensed for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19. According to some reports, there are at least 254 treatments and 172 vaccines currently in development to fight COVID -19. U.S. taxpayers are funding six COVID vaccines currently being fast tracked and tested. If the results are promising it may take at least a year before people can take advantage of it.

Third challenge:

Recognising the illness is not easy. Although majority of the patients with COVID-19 have classical symptoms that can be mild to severe, some patients may not exhibit any symptoms. You may not know you have symptoms of COVID-19 because they are similar to a cold or flu.

COVID-19 can make some people very ill. More rarely, the disease can be fatal. Older people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes) appear to be more vulnerable. Many experts believe this kind of illness has not been seen before in our lifetime.

Fourth challenge:

Getting the facts from reliable sources versus the stories getting ahead of the science. This causes sheer confusion.

It is estimated between 1,500 and 2,000 articles per week are published on the subject. Majority of the articles are considered of poor quality by many experts. But there is some outstanding work going on at a speed not seen before in scientific research. That is extremely positive.

Fifth challenge:

Long term effects of COVID-19. COVID-19 affects individuals in many different ways. Scientists are only starting to understand the vast array of health problems caused by the virus, some of which may have long-term effects on patients and health systems.

Coronavirus is not only a respiratory virus, the virus can affect your brain, heart, liver, kidneys and other organs. Some patients experience blood clotting disorders that can lead to strokes, and extreme inflammation that attacks multiple organ systems. The virus can also cause neurological complications that range from headache, dizziness and loss of taste or smell to seizures and confusion.

Sixth challenge:

Getting people to follow preventive measures. For example, getting them to wear a mask. But mask alone will not prevent the spread of COVID-19. You must consistently and strictly adhere to good hygiene and public health measures, including frequent hand washing and physical distancing. Stay at home. Go out only for essential things and keep yourself mentally and physically active at home.

Take care. Be safe. Be patient. It’s not over yet!

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