Undeniably, we are in unprecedented times. COVID-19 is a serious and fatal disease for some and globally it has, and will continue to have, wide-reaching implications, medically, socially, and financially for some time.
But medical advances will be significant.
Although we have learned a lot about the new coronavirus already, there is still a lot we don’t know. But understanding this virus better will help us understand other viruses better. Because this isn’t the first and it won’t be the last time we are exposed to a new virus.
Widespread diagnostic testing has meant we can identify all who carry the coronavirus. This highlights that many people test positive but remain unaffected, which we have never really established with a virus before. This probably happens with influenza viruses as well, but we just didn’t know it. Which underpins just how important basic hygiene measures are at combating the spread of any infection, not just SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Other questions will also be answered. Such as the roles genetics and the environment have on disease spread. Why are more people in Italy dying from COVID-19 compared to China? Why wasn’t the death rate higher on the Diamond princess, where 3711 people spent several weeks in a confined space with limited fresh airflow? The majority of these people were over 60 years old, yet only 7 people died and 83% didn’t contract the virus at all.
Already, research has shown people with A blood types have a significantly higher risk than those with O blood types. Latitude also seems to make a difference, with the spread of SARS-CoV-2 notably more significant in regions roughly along the 30°-50° North corridor with similar weather patterns (5-11°C [ 41-52°F]). All this information and much more will be extremely helpful at fighting disease now and in years to come.
Diagnostic testing has already come a long way in the space of several weeks. On March 21st, Cepheid received FDA Emergency Use Authorization for their Xpert® Xpress SARS-CoV-2 test, which can provide rapid detection of SARS-CoV-2, in approximately 45 minutes with minimal patient contact. This is a significant improvement from previous tests that required analysis by a laboratory.
Vaccine development will be fast-tracked. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a global alliance that funds and coordinates vaccine development, has at least eight different organizations working on a COVID-19 vaccine. We already have the technology to rapidly make vaccines but it’s often the necessary clinical trials and large-scale production that mean there is a significant time-lag before widespread roll-out. The availability of an effective vaccine is likely to be the turning point towards life returning to normal again.
Worldwide collaboration will ensure effective treatments are identified as soon as possible. Studies are already underway investigating the potential benefits of several medicines for reducing symptoms and viral shedding, such as chloroquine, already approved for malaria and rheumatoid arthritis, and the antiviral drug, remdesivir, originally developed to fight the Ebola virus. The more that government agencies and organizations work together, the faster effective management of COVID-19 will be established.
And that’s barely touching the surface of what we will learn. For once it is blindingly obvious to everybody the impact we have on our environment. Let’s hope we take these lessons and learn from them well.