Hope in the age of the coronavirus

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FILE PHOTO: A man in a surgical mask walks by goods for sale emblazoned with U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”, after more cases of coronavirus were confirmed in New York City, New York, U.S., March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

NEW YORK – In the age of the coronavirus outbreak which has forced lockdown of a state like California, with 40 million people, and whose economy – if it were to be counted as a country, is bigger than India; devastated businesses globally, and fatality rates continue to soar by the hour in New York, it’s hard scouting for glimmer of hope, revelation as to when this doomsday scenario would possibly end.

For those looking to minimize the damage, a report by Stat might give some relief. A team of infectious disease experts calculates that the fatality rate in people who have symptoms of the disease caused by the coronavirus is about 1.4%.

Although that estimate applies specifically to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began, and is based on data from there, it offers a guide to the rest of the world, where many countries might see even lower death rates, the report said.

The new figure is significantly below earlier estimates of 2% or 3% and well below the death rate for China based on simply dividing deaths by cases, which yields almost 4%. While it is still higher than the average 0.1% death rate from seasonal flu, it raises hopes that the worst consequence of the coronavirus will be uncommon, Stat noted.

Cutting against that optimism is the expectation that, because no one was immune to the new virus, “the majority of the population will be infected” absent the quick arrival of a vaccine or drastic public health interventions such as closing public places and canceling public events, the scientists conclude in a paper submitted to a journal but not yet peer-reviewed.

Others might take heart from a report in Vox this week, which suggests that though there’s limited research on the question of reinfection in humans, a virologist points to a study which seems to indicate that reinfection is not likely. Which some could analyze as immunity building from the disease would gradually grow, globally.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, points to a hopeful, if small, study in Macaque monkeys, says the Vox study.

The monkeys had been infected with the virus and then, after they got better, exposed again to the virus. Good news: They didn’t get reinfected, Vox reported. The study, Rasmussen says, “bodes well for vaccine development, because that suggests the virus — or viral proteins — can elicit an immune response,” and protect monkeys at least from reinfection.

The Los Angeles Times offered some more hope, with a report about scientists in the US showing more interest in a little-known medicine with ancient roots and many modern applications: convalescent plasma.

It’s medicine now coursing through the veins of at least 86,690 people in China and elsewhere, all of whom have joined a fraternity of potentially powerful healers. These are people who have been infected with the novel coronavirus and survived, said the report.

Scientists believe the antibodies generated by these recovered patients’ immune systems will protect them from reinfection, at least for a while. And if those same antibodies can be harvested from their blood and repackaged safely for administration to others, they may do something more remarkable, reported the Los Angeles Times.

The most encouraging news I read this week, though, was an accurate analysis by Michael Levitt, an American-British-Israeli biophysicist who won the 2013 Nobel prize for chemistry, in the Jerusalem Post.

According to Levitt, the coronavirus epidemic is slowing down in China, and will not pose a risk to the majority of people. That prediction, made in February, has now come true with China not recording any domestic spread cases of the virus in the last two days.

Levitt explained in an interview with Calcalist that he simply crunched the numbers.

“…The rate of infection of the virus in the Hubei province increased by 30% each day — that is a scary statistic. I am not an influenza expert but I can analyze numbers and that is exponential growth, he explained.”

Had the growth continued at that rate, the whole world would have become infected within 90 days. But as Levitt continued to process the numbers, the pattern changed. On February 1, when he first looked at the statistics, Hubei Province had 1,800 new cases a day. By February 6, that number had reached 4,700 new cases a day.

But on February 7, something changed. “The number of new infections started to drop linearly and did not stop,” Levitt said, reported the Post of his interview. “A week later, the same happened with the number of the deaths. This dramatic change in the curve marked the median point and enabled better prediction of when the pandemic will end. Based on that, I concluded that the situation in all of China will improve within two weeks. And, indeed, now there are very few new infection cases.”

By plotting the data forward, Levitt has predicted that the virus will likely disappear from China by the end of March.

However, that doesn’t mean Levitt is dismissive of the precautions being put in place by governments around the world.

“You don’t hug every person you meet on the street now, and you’ll avoid meeting face to face with someone that has a cold, like we did,” Levitt said. “The more you adhere, the more you can keep infection in check. So, under these circumstances, a carrier will only infect 1.5 people every three days and the rate will keep going down.”

Perhaps, the best outcome of the coronavirus nightmare which seems never ending might be this best-case scenario envisioned by Nicholas Kristof, in The New York Times: “Life largely returned to normal by the late summer of 2020, and the economy has rebounded strongly. The United States used a sharp, short shock in the spring of 2020 to break the cycle of transmission; warm weather then reduced new infections and provided a summer respite for the Northern Hemisphere. By the second wave in the fall, mutations had attenuated the coronavirus, many people were immune and drugs were shown effective in treating it and even in reducing infection. Thousands of Americans died, mostly octogenarians and nonagenarians and some with respiratory conditions, but by February 2021, vaccinations were introduced worldwide and the virus was conquered.”

Kristof also pointed out that the earlier virus scares, SARS and MERS, both petered out, and that is possible here.

Let’s hope so.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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