COVID19 – What we need to know

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This week we interviewed our Chief Technical Officer, Matthew Roberts, about COVID-19 to find out more about the virus and what we all need to know and do.

For all of us we have never seen or experienced anything like this. Can you share with us any relevant history to put coronavirus into context?

Undeniably, we are now in a full global pandemic that is unlike any recent outbreaks of disease. However, experts have been predicting that a pandemic will hit about every 100 years. These predictions were remarkably accurate given that this situation today has some similarities to something that happened around 1918–1920, 100 years before COVID-19.

That last pandemic was referred to as the 1918 Flu, or in some cases erroneously as the Spanish Influenza Outbreak. An interesting fact is that it did not originate in Spain. Whilst it was influenza with different biological characteristics to COVID-19, the situation is still very instructive in how a virus spreads and for how the world can react as that spread turns into a pandemic.

The Spanish Flu (for ease of reference) was just after World War 1, when many soldiers lived very close to one another and traveling back and forth between countries, many returning to their hometowns. In a similar way, business and recreational travel has increased in recent years and the movement of people has been key in spreading the virus.

The Spanish Flu first appeared in Kansas, US, and around the same time in France, Military doctors reported a similar virus. Many years later it was also realized that the influenza had appeared at a similar time in China. In the beginning of the outbreak there were very few news reports on the outbreak as Western governments felt that after WWI their citizens didn’t need more ‘bad news’ so they had implicit agreements with most major newspapers not to publish stories on the outbreak. This turned out to be a disastrous course of action as the virus was able to spread unchecked for some time before it the first major news stories broke in Spain (hence the name it was sometimes called). So it might be many years before we know the true origin of coronavirus, but just like the 1918 Flu, the impacts and procedures that followed include quarantining, supply issues, and widespread devastation dependent on human and government response.

SARS and MERS, which the world (or parts of the world) have experienced in recent times, were the warning signs. what we see now is that the countries that have experienced these conditions have built up a strategic reserve and put plans in place for future situations such as what we face today.

I suspect that just like the 1918 Flu there are likely to be waves of the virus over the next several months. Countries and health care providers will need to be vigilant, but we will prevail and it will come under control as both social practices and new therapeutic approaches are put in place.

On a positive note, I would also say that even though this is a very serious situation, we should expect that the duration and severity of the world’s response will be faster and better than it was in 1918 or with the more recent examples. There are some recent TedTalks that I found very insightful, on the positive developments and fast scientific and medical progress towards solving the COVID-19 Crisis (Please see below for links).

We are all consuming a great amount of news and hearing about new tests and potential vaccines all around the world. What is the reality?

There’s a lot we don’t know about Coronavirus. The version of the virus is different and medical teams are still learning about the virus and how it behaves.

But there are some good news stories, one being that global healthcare companies have already found some solutions to test and identify the virus, and this is a big step that I will talk to.

I will also say that the fight against coronavirus has, for the most part, had good political cooperation, and the science community is doing a good job sharing information freely, publishing data and papers before peer review to make sure information gets out there, and we are learning a lot through experiences being shared by patients, doctors and healthcare workers.

Can you tell us about the actual virus itself? In the media we see images – is this what it looks like?

Coronavirus, like other viruses, is a proteinaceous shell, or capsid, containing long strands of genetic material.  It looks like a soccer ball with spikes that interact with human cells. It is exceptionally good at sticking to cells, but it seems like once it attaches and releases RNA and replicates itself it propagates very slowly - this is one of the things that makes it so dangerous. If this wasn’t the case, we would be able to identify who has the virus more quickly, but with an incubation period of up to 14 days (where people can feel perfectly fine) they may be infecting other people during this time. It is likely that people who are ‘sick’ are more infectious than those who are asymptomatic, but it’s one of the challenging parts of the virus to manage, especially with the lack of testing and the current procedures available.

One thing we know that is common for most viruses that cause respiratory disease (up to this point) is that they usually affect the upper OR the lower respiratory tract but not usually both. The ones the affect the upper tract tend to be less dangerous but more infections, whereas the viruses that affect the lower respiratory tract tend to be more dangerous but less infectious.

Coronavirus seems to be able to affect both parts of the respiratory tract. It may turn out to be the case that it starts in the upper respiratory tract and then it has gone down into the lower migrates to the lower respiratory tract, which then causes it becomes much more severe in some people. It is a clever virus and one that we need to take very seriously.

So now we are here. We are already in this virus-stricken environment and many people are confined to their homes and their suburbs. Is it too late now to strengthen our immune systems or can we still prepare ourselves?

There are absolutely things we can and must do to help ourselves and our families right now. Sure, there are some things that we don’t have control of right now but there are other things that we have the power to control and be as healthy as we can to take on whatever challenge we face. And we work for a health and wellness company, so I think we mostly all have an interest in health and are proactive about our health.

It is important to practice all the measures the governments are telling us, really monitoring yourself and your families/loved ones. And it’s also important to remember that just because our focus is on coronavirus, we can still get other illnesses.

With any sort of infection your body has an immune system to protect you and others around you. This is activated when the body recognizes something that is not meant to be there, and the immune cells attach to the foreign matter and work together to destroy it.

Once our immune system has encountered a microorganism, it stores information about it and how to fight it. This acquired immunity means if we come into contact with it again, our immune system will know how to fight it straight away.

Your immune system is always learning and adapting; therefore, our immunity is its ability to resist and protect us from particular microorganisms. This is how vaccines work; they expose your immune system to a small amount of a microorganism (not harmful) so that your body is able to recognize it and fight it quickly if it is exposed to it in the future. With a new virus like COVID-19 your acquired immunity is a little deficient. Medical researchers all across the world are working on potential vaccines – whilst we are hearing positive reports from many different research and medical bodies, as with any vaccine it will take a while to undergo the thorough testings and regulatory approvals to be available to patients and the public.

In the meantime, it’s good to keep abreast with such scientific developments, so you can distinguish what’s factual and evidence-based from fiction, and to invest in practices that will help us to not only to remain healthy but also to invest in our well-being.

It really comes down to healthy living. Eating well, moderate exercise, really good sleep and really good attention to hygiene. They all reinforce each other. Any one is good but all together they enhance your body’s defense.

Sleep

Even though it is an anxious time for people use this time to rest. Lack of sleep is inflammatory and not allowing your body to recover and regenerate through sleep is not going to help your immune system. When I say that sleep is a key part of what you can do this doesn’t mean that you should just lie around all day.

Moderate exercise

Yes, it is hard to get outside. Yoga is great exercise if you don’t have much space, as is running if you have an exercise machine or still in a position to exercise outdoors away from people. Try to do moderate exercise 4-5 times a week, and remember, you don’t have to be really fit to get the benefits. Just try to get your heart rate up 20-30% above resting for 30 mins a day – it could just be a brisk walk.

Hygiene –

Hygiene is super important for protection and keeps your immune system from having to fight off challenges it doesn’t have to. I don’t need to say much more about hygiene.

Nutrition –

There are a couple of vitamins and minerals that I want to call out.

Zinc helps the immune cells signal to each other – if they don’t have communications, a much smaller enemy can defeat them. Immune responses are also dependent on zinc when macrophages (large white blood cells important part of our immune system) are released to neutralize the harmful pathogens.

Magnesium is an important co-factor in mediating the body’s inflammatory response.

Vitamin C supports cellular functions within the immune systems. Immune cells go through stress when you are under attack and defending the body. It seems like Vitamin C helps them to stay healthy.

Vitamin D is an important regulator of immune health. It enhances the production of proteins that are antimicrobial (agents that kill microorganisms or stop their growth). It is also thought to reinforce physical barriers of epithelial cells (skins and inner cells that act as frontline barrier - a physical barrier as well as a biological barrier).

Other antioxidants have less evidence than Vitamin C but consuming more antioxidants in general is probably a good thing.

Are there certain foods we should be eating more or less of?

If you’re asking whether we should indulge in, or stay clear of wine, chocolate and coffee I say that controlled consumption of all of these is positive.

A glass of red wine may be beneficial (Note: 1-2 glasses, not 3!), but quite frankly a much better source of antioxidants is coffee. Coffee is in fact the #1 source of antioxidants in American society.

Dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants and also has anti-anxiolytic properties which means it reduces anxiety. As a side note - in a past life I was an expert chocolate taster. Perhaps we can set up a Zoom session on antioxidants in chocolate and have our own global virtual tasting session!

And I hope it goes without saying that fruits and vegetables are a must!

Thank you, Matthew. We’ve only been able to cover a small amount today but there is clearly a huge amount of knowledge within our science teams, and also to share with our team members. In the interests of work and health, we will take you up on your offer to host a virtual chocolate tasting and would love to hold a Zoom seminar for the team on healthy living – we can all do with some extra help and advice!
TedTalk links:

https://www.tedmed.com/talks/show?id=797319

https://www.ted.com/talks/alanna_shaikh_coronavirus_is_our_future?language=en

https://www.lshtm.ac.uk/newsevents/expert-opinion/100-questions-peter-piot-lshtm-director