Reasons to be cheerful? Five positive things about coronavirus

Throughout the year we have been fed an unrelenting diet of fear-enhancing messages and associated imagery about the novel coronavirus, SARS-COV-2. Apparently, the threat posed by this latest coronavirus is so dire that the first series of hugely damaging lockdowns and associated restrictions is insufficient to halt the germ’s mission to exterminate most of the world’s population, and more masochistic diktats to implement nation-wide house arrests are required across Europe. Given the current atmosphere of suffocating doom, it is timely to remind ourselves of the positive news about SARS-COV-2 as compared to the characteristics of the many previous viruses we have had to live alongside.

1. Low lethality

The Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) of SARS-COV-2 is in the range 0.15% to 0.2%. In other words, for every 1,000 people who contract this virus no more than two people will die. As stated by John Ionnidis, an eminent professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, this IFR level is in ‘the same ballpark as seasonal flu’.

Furthermore, this latest coronavirus predominantly impacts older people, particularly those with pre-existing illnesses. The median age of those dying is around 82, slightly higher than the average life expectancy. In statistical terms, the IFR for those people below the age of 70 is between 0.03% and 0.04%; for every 10,000 people infected, only 3 to 4 will die.

Although the IFR for SARS-COV-2 is slightly higher than that of most seasonal influenzas, its lethality is tiny in comparison to the 1918/19 Spanish flu when the IFR was probably around 15%.

2. Minimal impact on young people

Unlike other respiratory viruses, SARS-COV-2 is kind to young people. The additional risk of death from being infected by this new coronavirus is essentially zero in children and young adults and near zero for those under 50 years of age. A study published in August 2020 in the British Medical Journal concluded that only six children (in the UK) under 18-years-old had died with SARS-COV-2 and all had serious co-morbidities.

In contrast, the death toll – in England alone - from seasonal influenza for children under 15 in 2014/15 and 2016/17 was 104 and 97 respectively. Hospitalisations for flu are higher in those children under 5-years-old than for any other age group.

3. An ‘illness’ often without symptoms

Another reassuring aspect of the SARS-COV-2 virus is that the large majority of those infected will have few, if any, symptoms.

An early Chinese study reported that 80% of those testing positive for the virus had no symptoms at all. A more recent paper (August 2020) reached a similar conclusion, finding that three-quarters of English infections were asymptomatic. Although some other studies have reported a lower percentage of symptomless ‘cases’, the most parsimonious conclusion is that up to 80% of people contracting the virus will, at worst, experience only mild symptoms.

4. Many of us already have some degree of immunity

Despite the SAGE scientists displaying a stubborn denial of this piece of good news – and persisting with the assumption that 93% or more of the general population remain vulnerable – there is accumulating evidence that many of us already have some degree of immunity to SARS-COV-2. Our previous exposure to similar viruses (SARS in 2003, MERS in 2011, and those ubiquitous coronaviruses responsible for the common cold) will have led to around 30% of the population already benefitting from some degree of resistance to the SARS-COV-2 prior to its emergence. The entities responsible for this immunological memory are called T-cells.

So while antibodies (the most obvious indicator of immunity) to SARS-COV-2 may be present in no more than 7% of the population, memory T-cells are much more common, having emerged either as a response to historical common colds or to previous SARS-COV-2 infections. Furthermore, immunologists believe these T-cell responses persist.

All-in-all, some degree of T-cell immunity to SARS-COV-2 is likely to be present in around two-thirds of the population. Given that children under 10-years-old are unaffected (and are poor transmitters), it can be estimated that less than 30% of UK citizens remain highly vulnerable to this latest respiratory virus.

5. Effective treatments

For the small minority who suffer significant illness following SARS-COV-2 infection, a range of effective treatments are emerging.

Despite a false narrative to discredit it, a meta-analysis of 100 studies concluded that hydroxychloroquine (an anti-malaria drug) can significantly reduce mortality if given early. Vitamin D – another cheap, readily available substance – in high doses can reduce the need for intensive care by 96%.

For patients on ventilators, dexamethasone (a steroid) has been shown to achieve a moderate (but significant) reduction in fatalities. Furthermore, zinc may also reduce the mortality rate, and intravenous injection of mesenchymal stromal cells may promote recovery in critically ill patients.

Initial drug-company hype about the effectiveness of Remdesivir appears to have been misplaced; perhaps yet another example of where profiteering has been given precedence over the science. Nonetheless, the overall picture for the development of effective treatments for those unfortunate enough to suffer life-threatening illness following SARS-COV-2 infection is an encouraging one.

So there you go, five reasons to be cheerful to counter the prevalent doom and gloom. I hope, after reading this, you’re already feeling a bit more upbeat


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