Understanding the COVID-19 virus: How it behaves and spreads


The virus that causes COVID-19 belongs to the family of coronavirus that causes many illnesses including the common cold and the flu. However, this is a new and previously unknown strain of coronavirus. There is no record of this virus in known history. This is the reason why scientists are unable to figure out the disease. No wonder that, so far, it has perplexed scientists and the general population alike. Since it first appeared in Wuhan, a province in China, it has rapidly spread to all parts of the globe. Now, even after more than 6 months of the pandemic, we still don’t have a vaccine and cure for it. Also Read – This is why Dr Fauci wants you to wear a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic

There are a lot of misconceptions about how this disease spreads and how exactly it affects a person. Scientists have no data to fall back on. This makes it more difficult for them to understand the disease. There is a lot of confusion among the general population too. In the early days of the pandemic, fever, cough and breathing difficulties were thought to indicate infection. But, as time went by, new and more severe complications came to light. There is still a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of the virus and how exactly it affects the human body. Also Read – COVID-19 Live Updates: Cases in India surge to 16,95,988 as death toll reaches 36,511

The recently held HealthSite Summit 2020 sought to clear the many misconceptions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The topic for the first session of the summit was ‘Understanding the novel coronavirus: How it behaves and spreads’. Three very eminent doctors, who have been leading the war against this pandemic from the frontlines, spoke on many issues related to the current situation. Also Read – Watch the COVID19 Health Summit on WION

Flattening the curve in Delhi

Speaking at the summit, Dr Guleria, Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), spoke at length about the COVID-19 curve flattening in Delhi. Recently, there have been reports that this city may have already crossed the peak. The number of active cases also are declining. Dr Guleria gives credit to the aggressive efforts of the government on all fronts like testing, tracing and isolating. He says the initial projection for mid-July was frightening. But thanks to these efforts, the situation is under control. As he says, “We were earlier seeing 800 patients being admitted to hospital. It has now come down to around 400 patients. So, we can say that there has been almost a 50 per cent decline in cases in Delhi.”

But he also cautioned that despite this, it is essential that all measures like testing, tracing, isolating and maintaining social distancing are continued. “The virus is still lurking in the population and it can come back very easily, he added.”

Role of face masks in stopping transmission

To stop the spread of the disease, it is important to adhere to the safety guidelines laid down by the government and health organisations. Wearing a face mask is an important precaution. Speaking on this, Dr Anoop Misra, Chairman, Fortis Centre for Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol, popularly known as Fortis C-DOC, said, “If we don’t observe a proper face mask wearing, we will soon see another wave in a short time.”

In Delhi, many people do not follow the precautions of social distancing and wearing of masks diligently. This is a dangerous trend whatever their reasons for doing so may be. According to Dr Misra, homemade face masks are quite effective in protecting you from the virus if you are not in close contact with an infected person. The same goes for loose fitting surgical masks. These are physical barriers that offer around 40 to 45 per cent protection. But the N95 masks can filter 95 per cent of all particles. You need to wear this if you are a healthcare worker or if you are in close contact with infected people. But here also, you need to choose one that does not have a valve. As Dr Misra says, “You must not use any masks that has valves as it allows air to exit the mask and also enter the mask. These masks are not make for coronavirus.”

The impact on COVID-19 on patients of chronic ailments

The COVID-19 virus is especially dangerous for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Heart patients are more vulnerable to this infection. They are also likely to catch a more severe strain of the novel coronavirus. Therefore, the need to take extra precautions. Dr K Srinath Reddy, a cardiologist and president of Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), says, “Any patient with a pre-existing heart disease is as likely as anybody else to get the virus. However, how extensively the virus takes up residence in the body and how fiercely it attacks the various organs of the body with severe clinical consequences depends upon pre-existing risks in people with heart disease.” This virus attacks the blood vessels. Since most people with heart disease may have damaged blood vessels, they are also likely to have severe complications. The virus affects the small blood vessels, which can lead to clotting and heart attack. This is true for all organs of the body.

Diabetes patients are also in the high-risk group. DR Misra says that “diabetic patients are not more vulnerable to the virus. But in mortality and morbidity, is much higher.” Diabetic patients have low T-cell immunity and higher cytokine levels. Dr Misra adds that “if blood sugar levels are in control at the time of admission and hospitalization, their risk as as high as any other person.”

On the vaccine front

Human trials for India’s indigenous vaccine Covaxin is going on at AIIMS. Speaking on this, Dr Guleria says, “This is a multi-centric trial being done in many centres across India. Initial data suggest that this vaccine is safe. But we need to follow-up to see for long-term safety. Once we have that and we are able to give it to the Data Safety Monitoring Board, then we will work on dose escalation and what is the ideal dose. And at the same time, immune-geneticity of the virus is also being looked into subsequently.” He is hopeful that many indigenous vaccines may be in human trials in the next few months.

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