SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease — did not exist last year. At the beginning of 2020, as the world raced to slow the spread of the virus, scientists, researchers, and medical professionals set out to learn more about the novel coronavirus.
“It’s a very novel virus,” said Oz Mohiuddin, SDI’s CEO. “I have to say, it’s acting very differently than what we have seen with other viruses. At this point in time, it’s about surviving, about caring for our communities, our families, and preventing the spread.”
While there are still a lot of unknowns, we now have a better understanding of the virus, its symptoms, and how it spreads.
SARS-CoV-2 is a novel coronavirus, and a part of the coronavirus family, which are viruses that can cause a variety of illnesses. Coronaviruses cause one-third of common colds and sometimes respiratory infections.
“Coronaviruses as a class are around us all the time,” said Dr. David Haase, SDI’s Medical Director. “It is a very specific type of coronavirus and it is the SARS-CoV-2 virus. When that virus causes disease, we call that disease COVID-19. It is very easily transmitted via droplets, via aerosols, via contact surfaces. It is sneaky. Once it has infected an individual, that individual can shed that virus to infect other individuals, before that person even knows that they are ill, or that person may never know they’re ill and still be able to spread the virus.”
A wide range of symptoms have been reported by people with COVID-19, ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms may appear within two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. However, a substantial portion of individuals infected with COVID-19 have shown no symptoms at the time of testing, or were asymptomatic.
“It has a vast range of symptoms, and it is rather clear that the sicker you are before you’ve been infected with the virus, the more challenges you’re going to have with regard to symptoms and severity of illness after you have been infected,” Dr. Haase said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms include the following: fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea.
“Individuals that have particular risk are obese individuals with diabetes, individuals with preexisting blood vessel disease, coagulation disease, and immune disorders,” Dr. Haase said. “Therefore, it has disproportionately affected the oldest and the most frail groups in the United States.”
Severe symptoms can lead to hospitalization and the need for a ventilator. “The hope is that individuals can survive long enough with these supportive therapies, that they can come through, but once a person gets on [a ventilator], it has a very high mortality rate, nearly 80% of those individuals will die,” Dr. Haase said.
“Treatment has been focused upon supportive therapies, and a host of studied new interventions,” Dr. Haase said. Some research has shown that treatment can affect patients differently.
“An individual who has a suppressed immune system early on may benefit from medications that augment the immune system,” Dr. Haase said. “Individuals that have an overly aggressive immune response may benefit from immunosuppressants. We’re at the front edge of our learning curve in treatment.”
The time spent social distancing amid stay-at-home orders provided opportunities for scientists and researchers, allowing them to learn more about the virus and treatment options.
“All of the efforts to slow the curve saved lives because it has given us knowledge, but there is a long way to go,” Dr. Haase said. “We do not have a cure. We do not have a vaccine. This is a disease that is best avoided, if at all possible, because there are also long term effects. I’ve mentioned that the very ill can be affected more deeply, but even the very young can have unexpected severe disease.”