Coronavirus (COVID-19) myths busted
Claim: ‘Face masks don’t work’
Wearing a face mask isn’t an iron-clad guarantee that you won’t get sick – viruses can also be transmitted through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks. However, masks are effective at capturing droplets, which is a main transmission route of coronavirus.
If you’re likely to be in close contact with someone infected, a mask reduces the chance of the disease being passed on. If you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, or have been diagnosed, wearing a mask can also protect others. Masks are crucial for health and social care workers looking after patients and are also recommended for family members who need to care for someone who’s ill.
However, you should only wear a mask if a health care professional advises it. If you’re NOT displaying symptoms such as coughing or sneezing), paper face masks are not recommended by Public Health England, the NHS or other major health authorities. They’re ill-fitting and what protection they might initially provide soon expires. Worse, they quickly become moist inside, providing the perfect environment for germs to thrive in, and also become a hazard for others if carelessly discarded.
Claim: ‘It’s mutating into a more deadly strain’
All viruses accumulate mutations over time and the new coronavirus is no different. How widespread different strains of a virus become depends on natural selection – the versions that can spread quickest and replicate (that is, “reproduce”) effectively in the body will be the most “successful”. This doesn’t necessarily mean most dangerous for people though, as viruses that kill people rapidly or make them so sick that they’re incapacitated may be less likely to be transmitted.
Genetic analysis by Chinese scientists of samples of the virus, taken from patients in Wuhan and other cities, suggests that early on two main strains emerged, named L and S. The team behind this research suggested that it’s possible the L strain is more “aggressive”, either transmitting more easily or replicating faster inside the body. However, this theory is unproven at this stage – there haven’t yet been direct comparisons to see whether people who catch one version of the virus are more likely to pass it on or suffer more severe symptoms.
Claim: ‘It’s no more dangerous than winter flu’
Many individuals who get coronavirus will experience nothing worse than seasonal flu symptoms, but the overall profile of the disease, including its mortality rate, looks more serious. The World Health Organisation believes that the current estimates of a roughly 1% fatality rate are accurate. This would make COVID-19 about 10 times more deadly than seasonal flu, which is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year worldwide.
Claim: ‘It only kills the elderly, so younger people can relax’
Most people who aren’t elderly and/or don’t have underlying health conditions won’t become critically ill from COVID-19. However, the illness still has a higher chance of leading to serious respiratory symptoms than seasonal flu, and there are other at-risk groups – health workers, for instance, are more vulnerable because they’re likely to have higher exposure to the virus. The actions that young, healthy people take, including reporting symptoms and following quarantine instructions, will have an important role in protecting the most vulnerable in society and in shaping the overall trajectory of the outbreak.
Claim: ‘You need to be with an infected person for 10 minutes’
For flu, some hospital guidelines define exposure as being within 6 feet of an infected person who sneezes or coughs for 10 minutes or longer. However, it’s possible to be infected with shorter interactions or even by picking the virus up from contaminated surfaces, although this is thought to be a less common route of transmission.
Claim: ‘A vaccine could be ready within a few months’
Scientists were quick to begin developing a vaccine for the new coronavirus, helped by the early release of the genetic sequence by Chinese researchers. The development of a viable vaccine continues, with several teams now at work. However, the multiple trials required before a commercial vaccine could be rolled out are a lengthy undertaking – and an essential one to ensure that even rare side-effects are spotted. A commercially available vaccine within a year would be quick.
Claim: ‘Now a pandemic has been declared, there’s nothing more we can do to stop the spread’
A pandemic is defined as a worldwide spread of a new disease – but the exact threshold for declaring one is quite vague. In practice, the actions being taken wouldn’t change whether or not a pandemic is declared. Containment measures aren’t simply about eliminating the disease altogether. Delaying the onset of an outbreak or decreasing the peak is crucial in allowing health systems to cope with a sudden influx of patients.
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Thank you to our volunteer guest blogger Rita Arresta for writing this blog.