On the one hand, everyone is probably tired of the incessant Coronavirus/Covid-19/pandemic news, but on the other hand that is the big news everyone wants to hear. We’re trying to strike a balance here, and in fact we should probably be writing more about it given the number of questions and requests I am receiving. David Gorski gave an excellent update just two days ago, and I wrote about Coronavirus myths vs facts two weeks ago. But the information is moving quickly and there has already been a few bits of news I thought worthy of another update.

I won’t give the numbers. Dave’s update will do, and there are plenty of sites from the CDC to the WHO if you want the latest up-to-the-second numbers. Bottom line – it’s bad. If you just look at the raw numbers it may not seem that impressive, especially since the number of cases and deaths are much higher in for the seasonal flu. But don’t be confused – this is a much more deadly virus, it is very contagious, and causes serious illness. I will reinforce was Dave reported and what the experts are endlessly saying – our hospital system will be overwhelmed (like it is in Italy) if we don’t slow down the spread of this disease through aggressive social distancing. Everyone needs to take this very seriously.

Ironically, if we are successful and avoid a worst-case scenario, like Hong Kong and some other locations have, then the uninformed cynics will say that it was all hype and panic. Don’t believe them. Don’t believe the talking heads saying that it is not that bad, that you should still go out and keep up your economic activity. Rather, we should be seriously preparing for social isolation for several weeks at least. This is likely beyond the experience of most Westerners living today, and it may be challenging, but I think we’re up to it if we ignore the naysayers. Listen to the experts instead.

Here are some bits of virus news, some encouraging, some sobering:

The virus can last for hours to days

This is a robust virus that can last for longer than we suspected in water droplets and on surfaces. A new study published in the NEJM found:

The scientists found that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was detectable in aerosols for up to three hours, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

This is important information, it means we have to consider all surfaces as contaminated. You do not need direct contact with someone who is sick in order to get CoV-2, you just have to touch a doorknob that someone touched the day before. Again, this is why social isolation is so important. And also, I will be the one millionth person to tell you – wash your hands in soap and water, scrubbing them for 20 seconds, and rinse in running water. Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol will do as well, but you need to use a large amount (fill your palm) and scrub thoroughly. Don’t touch your face (you will, but just keep this in mind).

But also – keep surfaces not just clean but antiseptic. Use Lysol or an alcohol-based cleaner, and keep any surface people touch clean. This is especially important in public places. At the hospital where I work they hired a team of people to essentially roam around the hospital constantly sanitizing all surfaces. Also, if you have to go out, don’t touch things with your hands. You can operate many doors and other things with your elbow. A common route of the virus into your body is from your hands to your face. You touch something crawling with Coronavirus, then scratch your nose. This chain must be broken.

But of course, the virus survives for hours in aerosols, so keep your distance from other people, don’t go out, and if you have to, the masks help a little but don’t get a false sense of security from them.

SARS CoV-2 has a natural origin

This may be “yeah, duh” news for most people reading this, but it is important to note that scientists have studied the novel Coronavirus specifically to determine its origin. A recent study concludes that it was definitely not engineered. It is a naturally-occurring virus, meaning that it evolved outside of the lab, and was not created in any way. The authors write:

SARS-CoV-2 is the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans; SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 can cause severe disease, whereas HKU1, NL63, OC43 and 229E are associated with mild symptoms6. Here we review what can be deduced about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 from comparative analysis of genomic data. We offer a perspective on the notable features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome and discuss scenarios by which they could have arisen. Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.

This is important factual information for countering all the conspiracy theories out there. Of course it will not sway the conspiracy theorists themselves, they are immune to facts (that is the core nature of conspiracy thinking). They will dismiss this news as part of the conspiracy. But for those who still respect facts, this is reassuring. It is also good information for those who heard about the conspiracies and are curious, but able to be persuaded by information.

Vaccine development moves to human trials

I will end with some good news – the scientific study of CoV-2 has been incredibly fast, almost unprecedented. The scientific community is essentially “scienceing the shit” out of this pandemic. Already we are starting the first human trials of a potential vaccine. This is just preliminary testing, mostly for safety but also to look at biological markers to see if the vaccine is doing what it is supposed to do. This is not a live-virus vaccine, so cannot cause disease, but rather contains a DNA fragment from the virus.

We cannot predict exactly how long it will take to fully develop and deploy a vaccine. Estimates are from 12-18 months, hopefully at the sooner end of the spectrum. We also don’t know how protective it will be. But anything will help, it will reduce the number of receptive hosts, and make it more difficult for the virus to spread through a population (herd immunity).

This is, perhaps, one good thing that will come out of this pandemic. It is coming at a time when reality, facts, and expertise are under fire. The basic concepts themselves are being challenged. But now we are seeing in an obvious first-hand way the pitfalls of making your own reality, of denying facts and science. Real scientists are also coming to the rescue.

Perhaps the world will take note – when it really matters, we need facts and science. Reality doesn’t care what we believe. It does not alter itself to conform to our delusions and desires. So we better conform our beliefs to reality. That’s science.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.