We are in the midst of a global health emergency. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc across the world. It has shut down entire countries and pushed healthcare services to unprecedented limits.
Coronavirus COVID-19 - What You Need to Know
All your questions answered
What are viruses?
A virus is an infectious agent that can only replicate itself within a host organism, using the host’s cells to produce copies of itself. They can infect many different organisms, including bacteria, plants (although not coronaviruses) and animals – including humans.
Viruses are so small that their existence wasn’t realised until the 1890’s and were first seen only in 1939 following the introduction of the electron microscope. Viruses are extremely small and the jury is still out as to whether or not they are living organisms. Their genetic material (viral genome) is contained within a protein shell called a capsid and can vary greatly - they can be DNA or RNA, single or double-stranded, linear or circular, and vary in length and in the number of DNA or RNA molecules. In some viruses, the protein shell is enclosed in a membrane called an envelope.
Why do viruses infect us?
They do it in order to replicate themselves as they cannot reproduce in any normal way that we can relate to.
A virus infects its host by attaching to one of the hosts cells and penetrating the cell wall or membrane. The virus's genome is uncoated from the protein shell and injected into the host cell where it hijacks its machinery, forcing it to replicate the viral genome and so producing component parts for new viruses which are then assembled into complete viruses. These new viruses then burst out of the host cell in a process called lysis, which kills the host cell. The new viruses may then go on to infect new cells and ultimately new hosts.
Many diseases in humans are caused by viruses, such as influenza, chicken pox, German measles, AIDS, Ebola, the common cold and rabies. The primary defence against viral infections is vaccination made up of inactive viral particles which act as antigens and alert the body’s immune system in much the same way as an active virus would. The body’s immune system responds by producing antibodies that fight the invader and increase its immunity to the disease.
The major health problem with viral infections is that it is very difficult to destroy the viruses without destroying our own human cells that harbour them.
What are the differences between viruses and bacteria?
Bacteria are much larger than viruses, were first discovered in 1676 and can been seen under a normal microscope. They are single-celled organisms that can thrive in a range of environments - soil, oceans, plant and animal cells and for some bacteria that includes human cells, in fact almost anywhere - and can reproduce without invading our cells.
Bacteria were among the first life forms to appear on Earth, and are present in almost all the life forms that subsequently developed – in fact, they couldn’t live without bacteria. That relationship can be symbiotic (to the benefit of both the bacteria and host) or parasitic (the bacteria lives off the host). A good example of a symbiotic relationship in humans is the ‘good’ bacteria in our intestines which extract energy from food, create vitamins and amino acids and form barriers against infective invaders. They even stimulate your immune system, break down toxins and boost your overall health. So not all bugs are bad! There are typically 40 million bacterial cells in a gram of soil and a million in a millilitre of fresh water.
Before the Second World War, the main causes of death across the world were bacterial infectious diseases such TB, pneumonia, smallpox and cholera. With the widespread introduction of antibiotics after the war, these and other infectious disease could be successfully cured but antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. In developed countries, the main cause of death became degenerative diseases caused by diet and lifestyle – heart disease, obesity, diabetes, strokes etc.
The overprescribing of antibiotics and particularly their use in farmed animals, which accounts for 75 per cent of all antibiotics worldwide, has seen their effectiveness diminish and bacterial infectious disease which were believed to have been defeated are beginning appear once more. Worryingly, no new antibiotic has been discovered since 1980 and, even more worrying, no new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1962.
What are coronaviruses?
They are named “corona” (like a crown) because their membranes are studded by spike-like proteins. They have been known to be infectious for decades but were initially recognized for only mild illnesses such as the common cold.
A concern regarding coronaviruses is that they are zoonotic, meaning they can spread from animals to humans and take more virulent forms.
Where did SARS and MERS come from?
Many of the most virulent diseases that infect humans have been transmitted to us from animals. In fact, a whopping 75 per cent of new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before humans started farming animals none of the major infectious diseases affected us but we now know that whooping cough came from pigs, typhoid fever from chickens, influenza from ducks, leprosy from water buffalo and the common cold from horses.
As we then crammed ever-more animals together in ever-more filthy and unhygienic conditions such as in factory farms, we have begun a game of pandemic Russian roulette.
Placing humans in ever closer contact with animals has enabled their diseases to mutate and infect us. Bats, civet cats, pangolins, wolf pups, beavers and many other forms of wildlife are on sale all over China and beyond in ‘wet’ markets, either slaughtered to order or to take away to kill. The deadly SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2003 was traced directly to a colony of horseshoe bats but it was farmed wildlife – civets in this case – that were sold for food and Chinese medicine (they are believed to improve male virility, among other health attributes), that acted as a vector to pass the virus to humans.
The terrifying Ebola disease has been traced to eating primates (as bushmeat) who had been infected by bats. Bats were also involved in MERS who are believed to have spread the disease via camels, although the camel showed no symptoms.
Where did the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 come from?
Again, wild animals and Chinese wet markets are involved.
Several independent research groups have confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 is very similar to bat coronavirus, indicating bats as the natural host.
The latest genomic comparisons suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the cause of COVID-19) is the result of a recombination between two different viruses. In other words, it is thought to be a chimera of two pre-existing viruses in bats and most likely, pangolins, probably brought together at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. Here, wild animals, including birds, bats, pangolins, rabbits, bats, marmots and snakes were traded.
However, it is also possible the virus emerged a little earlier and again scientists state that the cause is trading in wild animals. Georgetown University infectious disease specialist Daniel Lucey states that the animal-to-person transmission of the virus could have occurred “in one or more multiple markets, or restaurants, or farms, or with wild animals, legal or illegal trade.”
Coronaviruses are known to jump from animals to humans, so it’s thought that many of the first people infected with the disease (mainly stallholders from the seafood market) contracted it from contact with animals. It then spread from human to human.
The important point is that destroying and eating animals is destroying everything, including us!
Why do the Chinese farm/eat wild animals?
After 20 years of severe food shortages and famine, the Chinese government abandoned collective farming and in the late 1970s encouraged farmers to trap wild animals including civets, snakes, rats, peacocks, porcupines, bats and many more species to commercially breed them for food.
Unfortunately, there are also cultural beliefs that wild animal parts, such as pangolin scales and bear bile, used in traditional Chinese medicine cure many ailments and make men more sexually virile.
Since the mid-1980s, China has modernised its farming of animals with vast factory farms (China is the world’s largest pork consumer, slaughtering over 700 million pigs in 2016). So now the trade in wild animals runs alongside factory farming, two perfect storms for creating pandemics.
The outbreak of COVID-19 revealed the scale of China’s trade in wildlife, both legal and illegal. A temporary ban covered some 20,000 wild animal breeding facilities and 54 species that were traded legally. A report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering estimates the wildlife farming industry is worth around US$57 billion annually. These breeding centres were allowed to operate under loopholes in Chinese domestic law, against the spirit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The parallel illegal trade is less easy to quantify, but globally it is valued by the UN at US$23 billion.
Has the trade in wild animals been banned in China?
On 24th February 2020, the 16th meeting of the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress in China on ‘Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption, and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People,’ permanently banned all trade and eating of terrestrial wild animals, whether captive-bred or wild caught.
Although potentially a huge step forward, according to an analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the decision does not ban trade for fur, zoos, pets, traditional Chinese medicine, conventional medicine or research. This creates a potential loophole for traffickers who may exploit the non-food exemptions to sell or trade live wildlife
How many coronaviruses infect humans?
How many people have been infected and killed by SARS, MERS and COVID-19?
SARS: Emerged 2002.The NHS reports there were 8,098 reported cases and 774 deaths. Death rate: 10%
MERS: Emerged 2012. The World Health Organisation reports that it has infected 2,519 people (2012 until 31 January 2020), causing 866 deaths. Death rate: 34%
COVID-19: Emerged 2019. As of 18 September 2020, over 30 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported, including almost one million deaths. (Note - very many cases are not tested for or reported in some countries, so true figures are much higher.) See the WHO dashboard here for the latest figures.
Death rate: between 0.16 and 3.4%. Estimated at 3.4% by the World Health Organisation in March 2020. It is too early to know how many of those infected will die as a result, which is known as the infection fatality rate. Countries with more elderly populations will have higher IFRs.
New York example: as of 1 May 2020, 23,430 people are estimated to have died out of a total population of 8,398,748 in New York City. This corresponds to a 0.28% crude mortality rate to date, or 279 deaths per 100,000 population, or 1 death every 358 people. Note that the Crude Mortality Rate will continue to increase as more infections and deaths occur. When analysing the breakdown of deaths by age and condition, only 4.5% of all deaths occurred in patients under the age of 65 who did not have an underlying medical condition. (Counting everyone under 65 who died with or without an underlying medical condition, the figure is 26%. Underlying illnesses include diabetes, lung disease, cancer, immunodeficiency, heart disease, hypertension, asthma, kidney disease, GI/liver disease and obesity.)
What is the full name of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19?
Why are coronaviruses so deadly?
Most viruses have lived for millennia in wild animals without harming them, allowing the viruses to replicate without killing their host – which, would of course kill the viruses, too. By their nature, viruses constantly mutate, and these mutations may find other, different hosts. In fact, the extremely high mutation rates of viruses are not matched by any organism in the kingdom of life. The high mutation rates of viruses, coupled with short generation times and large population sizes, allow viruses to rapidly evolve and adapt to the host environment.
That is what happened with COVID-19 – it is a virus that has not infected humans before and that is one reason why it is so highly contagious – we have little or no residual resistance. The other reason is bad luck – two viruses swapped particular genes that make the new or novel form able to pass from person to person with ease, though its death rate is relatively low, between 0.7 and 3.4 per cent (depending on the location and, crucially, access to good hospital care).
Whereas, with MERS and SARS, although not as contagious as COVID-19, they are much more deadly, killing around 34 and 10 per cent respectively. The World Health Organisation say the mortality rate for the avian influenza virus H5N1 is about 60 per cent, thankfully it does not spread between humans easily. It is a matter of time before a pandemic breaks out where the worst happens: fiercely contagious and very deadly.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and dry cough, as well as loss or change of taste/smell. Some people may have loss of taste/smell, aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea, although these are mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don't feel unwell and most (about 80 per cent) recover from the disease without needing special treatment.
Around one in every six people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness. People with fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention
How does COVID-19 spread?
You can catch COVID-19 from others who have the virus. The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person and other people can then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets – and this is why it is important to stay more than two metres (over six feet) away from anyone during a period of self-isolation
Can COVID-19 be caught from a person with no symptoms?
Can COVID-19 be caught from faeces?
Should I wear a mask to protect myself?
Yes, but more to protect others.
Wearing masks almost entirely prevents tiny droplets from the mouth from spreading the virus.
Countries who have mandated to wear masks have reduced the cases of COVID-19 massively. For example, the Czech Republic have made home-made masks as a community effort, and have helped effectively reduced the spread. On 14 April 2020, there were 11,329 deaths caused by coronavirus in the UK; and 143 in the Czech Republic. This translates to 167 deaths/1 M pop in the UK compared to 13 deaths/1 M pop in the Czech Republic. Canada and South Korea also require or advise their citizens to wear masks in public places. And the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now advises the wearing of cloth masks in public.
Masks help stop the spread as people who are infected with coronavirus may not show symptoms for several days, and so do not know they are infected. When we speak, micro droplets are emitted from our mouths, masks - including home-made - stop most of the droplets from being ejected.
The masks offer less protection from catching the virus (if the infected person wasn't wearing a mask) because after the droplets have been emitted from the mouth, they dry out and turn into droplet nuclei which are very tiny and harder to filter.
So masks are about protecting the community. Prof David Heymann CBE, a World Health Organization (WHO) adviser, said, “I think that wearing a mask is equally effective or more effective than distancing.” As there is a world-wide shortage of masks and as health care workers come first, it's time to get imaginative and make your own! The Centers for Disease Control and prevention offers advice here on wearing home made masks.
Other effective ways to help protect yourself and others against COVID-19 are to frequently wash your hands with plenty of soap and water for 20 seconds, cover your cough with the bend of an elbow or tissue and maintain a distance of at least two metres (six feet) from people who are coughing or sneezing.
How long is the incubation period for COVID-19?
What is the R0 value?
The higher the R value the more infectious the virus. R4 means one person can pass on a virus to four people while R10 means it can be transmitted to 10. The higher the number, the more likely it is that an epidemic will develop, and as soon as it goes over one, that’s a sign there will be an outbreak.
It is determined by how infectiousness the pathogen is, the number and frequency of contacts between people and other factors.
The number is not fixed. It can be altered by many things, including behaviour, which is why countries around the world have imposed stringent social distancing measures. Keeping people away from one another makes a massive difference to the rate of infection.
Since the lockdown, scientists in the UK estimate that the UK's R value has dipped below one, and probably stands at around 0.7. This is key, because getting it below one is one of the government's five key tests for relaxing the lockdown. It means that every infected individual will pass the disease on to less than one other person, which ultimately means the epidemic dies out
What is the R0 for Covid-19?
By comparison seasonal flu is estimated to be roughly 1.3, while measles is incredibly infectious and has a reproductive value of between 12 and 18.
These figures are not set in stone because several factors influence how transmissible a disease is, including the density, size and susceptibility of a population, as well as the infectiousness of the virus itself.
Estimates of the R value for Covid-19 currently vary, partly because it is not known how many people have been infected. At the start of April, Imperial College, London stated that the R value stood somewhere between 3 and 4.6 in Europe before lockdowns came into effect.
In the UK now, the same team suggest that the UK's figure is between 0.5 and 0.75. This is important as it indicates that every infected individual will pass the disease on to less than one other person, meaning the epidemic will die out (so long as it stays below one – hence decisions on how and when lockdown is ended is vital).
What is herd immunity?
- Many people building natural immunity by contracting the disease and developing antibodies to fight the infection.
- Many people being vaccinated against the disease to gain immunity.
Many viral and bacterial infections spread from person to person, so this chain is broken when most people don’t get or transmit the infection. Herd immunity helps protect people from getting the disease if they haven’t been vaccinated; have not developed natural immunity, or whose immune system isn’t working optimally or are particularly vulnerable eg the elderly, babies, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and certain illnesses
How many people does it take to reach herd immunity?
His comments soon came under fire. Over 500 scientists from UK universities wrote to the government, saying that “going for herd immunity at this point” will risk “many more lives than necessary.”
Presuming Covid-19 has a death rate of around one per cent in the UK; if 60 per cent of the population became infected – some 40 million people – that could equate to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Clearly there are problems reaching natural herd immunity:
- Most people have to contract the illness to become immune. Contracting an illness can have health risks, and in the case of Covid-19 it means risking death for hundreds of thousands of people in the UK alone.
- You may not know if you’ve contracted the illness or if you’re immune to it.
Currently, the only way to stop the spread of Covid-19 is through social distancing, avoiding travel, frequently washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, coughing/sneezing into tissues; wearing masks when, for example, shopping/travelling on public transport.
Can I catch COVID-19 from my pet?
How long does the virus survive on surfaces?
There is still some uncertainty about how long COVID-19 can survive on different surfaces but it seems to behave like other coronaviruses. Studies on these have shown that the virus may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. (However, the virus degrades outside of the host’s body and so quickly becomes less able to infect a new host.) This may vary according to the conditions, type of surface, temperature and humidity.
The virus may live longer on harder surfaces such as plastic, glass and steel and shorter on softer surfaces such as fabrics, paper and cardboard. (This is because the virus is more stable within warm, moist environments like our body! Absorbent materials suck moisture away from the virus, causing their structure to collapse.) Wiping down hard surfaces with simple disinfectant is capable of killing COVID-19.
Is it safe to receive packages in, or from, areas with COVID-19?
Sunbathing/hot and cold temperatures/hot baths
Sunbathing and temperatures over 25°C offer no protection - you can catch COVID-19 no matter how sunny or hot the weather and countries who do have hot weather have reported cases of the virus. Similarly, claims that hot and humid weather can cause its transmission are also untrue and taking hot baths offers no protection. The normal human body temperature remains around 36.5°C to 37°C, regardless of the external temperature or weather.
There is also no reason to believe that cold weather can kill the new coronavirus.
Pandemics often don’t follow the same seasonal patterns seen in more normal outbreaks. It is true that eventually we would expect to see COVID-19 becoming endemic and seasonal. Jan Albert, a professor of infectious disease control who specialises in viruses at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, says once COVID-19 is endemic, “it would be really surprising if it didn't show seasonality then. The big question is whether the sensitivity of this virus to [the seasons] will influence its capacity to spread in a pandemic situation. We don’t know for sure.”
Does drinking alcohol offer protection?
Can COVID-19 be transmitted through mosquito bites?
Why is going outdoors so important? (with respectful and intelligent social distancing of course!)
Are hand-dryers effective in killing the new coronavirus?
Can an ultraviolet disinfection lamp kill COVID-19?
Can spraying alcohol or chlorine on your body kill COVID-19?
Do vaccines against pneumonia offer protection?
Can rinsing your nose with saline help?
Can eating garlic help?
What are the underlying diseases that make coronavirus more dangerous - and can they be prevented?
COVID-19 is more dangerous for older people simply because as we age, our immune system gradually weakens. There isn’t much we can do about aging but ensuring good nutrition is important for our immune system to be at its best.
Heart disease and diabetes are the two main underlying conditions that seem to make matters much worse regardless of age. The good news is that both can be prevented and even reversed through diet. Heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol respond really well to wholesome vegan diets, so much so that in some trials, they were more effective than medication. Type 2 diabetes has also been studied extensively and a low-fat vegan diet based on wholefoods has achieved great success in a number of studies.
Asthma sufferers are seen as vulnerable to COVID-19 complications because the infection affects the airways and can trigger serious asthma attacks. The condition also increases likelihood of pneumonia and acute respiratory stress. Asthma cannot be treated but research shows that a diet high in antioxidants from fruit and vegetables can help reduce the airway inflammation.
Cancer is another disease that puts people at high risk from COVID-19 complications. It not only compromises the immune system and causes a host of health issues but patients may also struggle to access their much-needed treatment and medications at this time. We cannot cure cancer with diet but a healthy lifestyle can help prevent it or support the treatment.
Chronic kidney disease has been linked to an increased risk of coronavirus infection progressing to the life-threatening pneumonia stage. Wholesome vegan diets have a kidney-protective effect, while animal-based ones can cause harm and kidney patients are actively advised against eating meat.
Several other factors, such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and conditions, such as liver disease, HIV/AIDS and severe obesity also increase the risk of life-threatening complications. While we cannot entirely protect ourselves from infection, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to our lifestyle habits!
Does a vegan diet have any impact on coronavirus?
The advantage of being vegan may come from the lower rates of underlying conditions that have been shown to increase the risk of coronavirus infection turning deadly – heart disease, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, obesity, cancer and chronic lung disease. Vegan diets also lead to beneficial gut bacteria that produce health-supportive substances and may help strengthen the immune system.
See what you should eat each day for good health.
Who is affected by COVID-19?
*Death Rate = (number of deaths/number of cases) = probability of dying if infected by the virus (%). This probability differs depending on the age group. The percentages shown below do not have to add up to 100%, as they do NOT represent share of deaths by age group. Rather, it represents, for a person in a given age group, the risk of dying if infected with COVID-19.
80+ years old
70-79 years old
60-69 years old
50-59 years old
40-49 years old
30-39 years old
20-29 years old
10-19 years old
0-9 years old
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The Viva! Vegan Podcast - #42 April 2020
Hear about COVID-19 from a different perspective than you’re hearing on mainstream news. Juliet Gellatley is joined by Viva!’s Associate Director, Tony Wardle, in a detailed conversation about how the virus started, its connections to factory farming, the role of veganism and what this means for the future.
Listen to the conversation below and then share the full podcast here.
Warning from Wuhan
by author and poet, Jane Mann
Warning from Wuhan
the bat that spread this virus you dread;
there in that knife-slashing market, waiting,
that hell of metal with creatures unfed:
reptiles, birds, mammals, trapped in close quarters,
torn from their rivers, from forest and plain,
their limbs and wings crushed, denied all movement
by bars, long bloodied, mishandled for gain.
No wonder it jumped in that fetid air
from my genes to pangolins’ on to yours.
Just the place for corona to hack it,
pierce the crammed cages, ideal for its cause.
From there to the hands that worked in this hell
to their mouths, to their noses and eyes,
spreading to young and old unsuspecting,
silent at first through denial and lies.
You’ll blame me no doubt for our close shared code,
envy the fact that I am largely immune.
It was you, though, and your cruel treatment as
humans that brought this pandemic typhoon.
I am sorry of course you have suffered loss,
so much pain and restriction, death and fear.
But you don’t seem to get it, do you,
the fact that this planet’s a biosphere,
that it’s not just for humans but all life
evolved, each with its special part to play.
If you capture, confine, consume other
creatures this way, there’s a price then to pay.
You’ve already had bird flu, Ebola.
You’ve had Mers and Sars, now Covid 19.
It’s not that I want retribution.
I just want you to see what I’ve seen.
There’ll be outbreaks much worse in the future
if you do not change, acknowledge our place.
We’re living beings. We’re not mere objects.
We have skills and the need, as you, for space.