Last updated 30.03.2020
With the rapid developments of COVID-19 playing havoc with virtually every aspect of our lives, it certainly is an unsettling time to be part of the human race - particularly when we have not had to deal with a worldwide scenario like this for close to 100 years.
One of the things that I find invaluable when faced with a situation where uncertainty reigns, is to find out as much as I can, and use that information to get a clearer picture. I feel it is important to be alert, but also to keep things in perspective, and to keep up to date with what we can control at this time. With that in mind, I spent several hours over the weekend learning the latest information on the pandemic, and the new information that has come to light even in just a few short weeks since I wrote my initial article on this topic.
WHY Is COVID-19 Such A Problem?
According to Dr Heather Zwickey, a renowned immunologist, PhD and university professor, there are several factors involved that are making SARS-CoV-2 such a problem. Remember from Part 1 that SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus itself, and COVID-19 is the infection that results.
- The virus is able to infiltrate the body by attaching to parts of both the respiratory and the cardiovascular system. This means it can cause problems in both of these areas (which includes not only your lungs and airways, but your heart, kidneys, fluid balance). Unfortunately, what this has meant is that people who suffer from cardiovascular issues (such as high blood pressure or heart disease) need to be extra careful about minimizing risk of catching the infection.
- One of the reasons why the infection is causing such havoc is that there is a delayed response to the infection from the immune system. Generally, when you are exposed to a virus, your immune system is very quick to catch on that there is an invader present, and it mounts a response. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, this is a completely new virus that human beings simply have not had to deal with before. With other infections such as when you are exposed to a seasonal cold or flu virus, even though these can be different strains each year, your body retains a memory of how to deal with similar viruses. There is also emerging evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is able to ‘hide’ from the immune system for several days, which gives it more time to replicate in the body. Our immune system is capable of sending a potent signal at the beginning of a viral infection, known as interferon, that interrupts the virus' ability to enter cells and make copies of itself. Because this virus can hide, this signal does not get released and the immune system is unaware the body is being covertly attacked.
- Many people who are infected don’t actually realize they have the virus, because they can feel quite well or only experience mild symptoms. This increases the ability of the virus to be spread out in the community. In comparison, when you are struck down with an infection like the flu, you usually feel unwell very rapidly, and as a result you ‘self-isolate’ by going straight to bed....thereby limiting the ability to infect others.
- The virus is capable of causing an inappropriate response by the immune system. Our immune response is designed to be swift and strong at the onset of an infection, and then switch off inflammation when the threat has been neutralized. In severe cases of COVID-19, what happens is actually the opposite - the immune response is delayed at the start of the infection, then can go into overdrive at the wrong time, causing more inflammation, symptoms and damage than the disease itself. This is called a ‘cytokine storm’, and it can be deadly. Thankfully, this doesn't occur for most people who get COVID-19.
Some Surprising Aspects of COVID-19
There are certain health issues that were assumed to make a COVID-19 infection more dangerous, but now have been shown to not be as much of a risk as previously thought. These include asthma, and smoking. While smoking of course is not recommended at any time for good health (!), it doesn’t appear that smokers are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. And the very immune imbalance that causes asthma appears to protect somewhat against the immune system going into overdrive.
Another thing to keep in mind is an aspect of the 'social distancing' that you may not have been aware of. We have certainly all seen the message to stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people as much as possible - and while social distancing aims to reduce the spread of the infection, it also plays another key role in potentially saving lives. With a high proportion of the population staying indoors, this translates to fewer car accidents and injuries, and a potentially lower rate of other infections too – which leaves our vital medical services free to focus on managing the unfortunate casualties of this pandemic.
Emerging Conventional Treatments
Currently, much research is focused around developing a potential vaccine, however clinical trials have only just begun on this at the University of Washington. Full vaccine trials usually take around 3 years, and it has been suggested that any vaccine will be fast-tracked, but still potentially 18 months or more away. By this time it is possible that there will be a reasonable level of natural immunity within the population. However - we just don't know yet.
Convalescent plasma, which was used during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and also more recently with the SARS and Ebola epidemics, is being used in some hospitals. This technique involves using the plasma (the liquid part of blood) from people who have survived the illness, and providing it to other people as both as a preventative and for support during active infection. Whilst this might sound icky, it certainly is quite interesting.
Pharmaceutical medications that have shown promise include anti-malarial drugs and medications used to treat Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
Current Natural Medicine Research
At time of writing, there are currently over 300 clinical trials underway, mostly in China and the USA, using natural medicines such as herbs and nutrients, for COVID-19. While we won’t know the results just yet, we do know that the Chinese protocol for managing COVID-19 infections officially includes vitamin C – both oral ingestion and intravenous where necessary. Some hospitals in New York are reportedly using this approach as well.
From a naturopathic viewpoint, we can also use potentially use some of the medicinal herbs and nutrients that have shown benefit for other similar illnesses. I mention some of these in the Part 1 article. Other natural compounds that have shown promise include rosmarinic acid (found in the herbs rosemary, sage, lemon balm, oregano and basil), melatonin (found naturally in certain foods such as cherries), and fish oils, which may have a regulating effect on the immune system.
Beware of Myths and Mysteries
Unfortunately, it has come to light that there are quite a few urban myths doing the rounds. Some of these have had heartbreaking consequences, such as dozens of people in Iran who died after drinking methanol thinking it would protect them against the coronavirus infection.
I’ve heard a few other bits of worrying advice lately too, including that the virus lives in the throat for several days, and if you can wash it out with salt water it will flush the virus into your stomach where your stomach acid will kill it. If only it were that easy! Unfortunately this is completely false – once a virus comes into contact with the mucus membranes in your throat (or nose, one of the other ways it enters your body) it is very quick to set up shop and certainly doesn’t muck around. Viruses need living cells in which to replicate (there’s a groovy little infographic here that explains how the virus gets in to your body, and what it does).
Please make sure that you question any advice that you find, particularly if it comes from social media. While there can be some great tips and information, there is also the potential for harm as well – and your life or the life of someone you love may depend on you getting the right information.
Where To From Here?
I hope this article has been helpful and given you a greater understanding of the current battle on COVID-19. I also hope that this article has been able to put your mind more at ease knowing that there is a lot happening to combat this illness that has made such an impact on our lives already, even if we have managed to avoid catching it. I will aim to update this article as more information comes to light, and let you know of any new developments I learn about.
In the meantime, stay healthy - and wash your hands!