COVID: More research needed | Daily News

COVID: More research needed

It is exactly one year since COVID-19 originated, becoming a contagion that engulfed the world in a few months. First reported from Wuhan, China in December 2019, COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus from the Coronavirus family. Hence its common name Coronavirus.

One year on, we are still learning about the novel Coronavirus as well as the disease it causes, COVID-19. We know this is a zoonotic virus – transmitted from animals to humans – and that there are thousands of Coronaviruses in the wild capable of making the jump to humans. This is probably what the World Health Organisation (WHO) meant when they said the present pandemic is not even the “big one”. In other words, there could be even worse (however unimaginable it might be) pandemics in the future.

Ever since Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the Coronavirus in January 2020, scientists and researchers around the world, including those at Sri Jayawardanapura University, have been studying the virus. Our understanding of viruses has grown considerably and since the genome was published online, it was possible to start work on a vaccine right away. This knowledge coupled with advances such as mRNA technology, enabled researchers to produce COVID-19 vaccines in record time. No other vaccines have been manufactured this swiftly – the Ebola vaccine took four years from concept to manufacture. In fact, millions of people in Western countries are being vaccinated against COVID-19 as you read this.

Still, we are a long way away from completely understanding this contagion, leave alone controlling it. By now, we all know the symptoms associated with COVID-19 – mainly headache, runny nose, shortness of breath, fever, body aches and cough. But there are many unanswered questions. We still do not know why some people remain completely asymptotic while others have to seek ICU treatment. By now it is well known that those with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease etc. are more susceptible to COVID, but completely healthy individuals too have contracted the most severe stages of the disease and some have even died. There is also the phenomenon of “happy hypoxia” where individuals with very low blood oxygen levels caused by the Coronavirus smile and talk happily as if nothing has happened, whereas they should ideally be on a ventilator.

Scientists are also trying to understand why some people get COVID more than once. Usually, natural immunity lasts for some time after any illness. A case was reported recently from the USA where one individual had to be hospitalized seven times after being discharged with no ill effects the first time around. It was also reported that a nurse in the US who received the vaccine had contracted COVID nine days later, which probably means that the vaccine would not be effective if the virus was already present in your body. It is also not known whether those vaccinated can still pass on the disease to others and also how long immunity lasts after getting the vaccine. We also do not know whether the new virus strains discovered in the UK and South Africa are “immune” to the vaccine.

Doctors have also diagnosed what is now called “Long COVID” whereby patients experience chronic fatigue, body aches and other ailments long after they are deemed “cured” or discharged from hospital. Physicians have launched specialized clinics to treat and study these “Long COVID” patients, creating registries to track their progress. But answers are elusive: Why does brain fog, muscle weakness or shortness of breath linger in some people and not others? What can help lift the fog or restore their vigour? Can these people ever resume a normal life?

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about a third of COVID-19 patients still feel after-effects weeks after their infections clear and they test negative for the virus. One in four of those people was 18 to 34 years old and had no chronic medical conditions before falling ill with COVID-19, according to the CDC. A lot more research has to be conducted to study the prevalence and effects of Long COVID.

There are still many other “Great Unknowns” about COVID-19. One question is whether the disease will linger on for years, even decades, like influenza, even if some level of “herd immunity” is achieved once around 75-80 percent of the global population of eight billion is vaccinated. That means we will have to live with the disease. Indeed, only one viral disease – Polio - has almost completely been eliminated and even then, two strains are still circulating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Therefore, a vaccine may not be enough. While viral diseases have no “cure” in the traditional sense of the word, scientists are nevertheless striving to find one. One promising avenue seems to be “monoclonal antibodies” – a cocktail of antibodies that seems to work against the virus even in serious cases. But one way or the other, we have to defeat this virus for life to return to normal, not new normal.