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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Battling coronavirus isn't an exact science

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

Last week, the editorial board made the blanket statement that the chance of one of us catching coronavirus was close to zero. By the grace of Murphy’s law, news of a suspected case in Raleigh was released later that day. So ... that’ll be the last time I make a statement like that again.

Science is many things, but above all, it is fickle; a virus from Wuhan, China on the other side of the globe is something most people generally feel shielded from in North Carolina. However, with the rapid pace of travelers, especially given the Chinese New Year, it’s something that we cannot rule out with certainty.

As of now, 110 individuals are currently being evaluated for infection in the United States, while China is dealing with over 4,500 cases. The death toll has already risen above a hundred individuals. And although Wuhan has already taken quarantine measures, there’s warranted doubt on how effective the virus is being contained within the city. 

Regardless, the World Health Organization has held three meetings, and failed to declare a public emergency in the first two cases, which brought into question how serious the virus is. Fortunately, the WHO declared the virus a global health emergency today, Jan. 30. 

But for scientists and researchers, the game is just beginning. Commercial and academic institutions alike are at the races to find a potential vaccine or treatment for the virus. Although the coronavirus seems like something that’s arisen from nothing, it’s important to realize that scientists have been preparing for something like this for nearly two decades. 

Following the SARS outbreak in 2002-03, the group of viruses that the current coronavirus has stemmed from has been studied extensively — even a lab at Gillings School of Public Health here at UNC has been researching coronaviruses for years now. This makes it that much more efficient for researchers to analyze the coronavirus, as they have the ability to build vaccines off of ones that they already have developed. So why haven’t they come out with one?

The NIH’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have already sequenced the virus, and the results have been shared with Moderna and Inovio, companies that specialize in vaccine manufacturing. 

However, based on the timeline shared with the general public, the vaccine will not be ready for another month. With animal and human trials considered, it may not be available for use for another three months. This speaks volumes to the caution that researchers are required to take before presenting their work to the public and the infrastructure in place to prevent groundbreaking vaccines, technologies and methods from wreaking havoc in the case of a mistake. Physicians are hoping that this vaccine will never be used and that the coronavirus will be similar in a sense to influenza — a condition that appears in the winter and disappears on its own admonition in the spring.

Regardless, the scientific community is doing its best to aid in the research of the virus. Researchers in China are collaborating with individuals and faculty based in the United States and across the globe. Major scientific journals that publish research have announced that scientists will be permitted to publish their work to preprint servers to share results of experiments immediately with their colleagues, making open-access science that much more important in the rush to know more about the coronavirus.

The uncertainty of the coronavirus makes it difficult to treat effectively. Physicians are currently advising to treat the symptoms like a common cold, since that is how viruses of the coronavirus group have been dealt with in the past. With no drugs being currently approved, nearly all of the treatments for the virus are experimental. 

The question that is still up in the air is the effectiveness of the containment of the virus, and to what level of progression the virus will reach before it affects our lives here. However, as morbid as the situation may be, it is one of the things that shows the grit of the scientific community and the speed at which science moves today.

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