Mysteries of coronavirus that baffle medics and researchers: The Standard

It has been more than six months of the world struggling to understand the novel coronavirus that has changed life as if overnight. Scientists spend their days holed up in laboratories trying to find a cure, governments come up with policies to control the spread of the disease and people are constantly poring through documents to get any new piece of information that would help in ensuring they do not catch the virus.

Amid the heaps of information that keeps flowing, there are aspects of the disease that baffle even the most experienced medics, adding to the complexity of what it will take to eradicate the pandemic. Some of the questions medics are racking their heads over are:

1. Why the loss of smell but no blocked nose?

When people have respiratory diseases like common cold and flu, they might lose their sense of smell due to the buildup of mucus. Coronavirus presents differently. Loss of smell (anosmia) and taste comes suddenly, with most patients saying their noses were clear.

What was even more mysterious was that some patients still had a loss of smell for many months long after they had tested negative for coronavirus. Early research suggested it could be from the virus destroying olfactory neurons that trigger the brain to sense smell. Further research disputed it, showing that the proteins the virus needs to invade the cells were not found on the olfactory neurons.

Scientists have another theory: “Coronavirus changes the sense of smell in patients not by directly infecting neurons but by affecting the function of supporting cells,” said Sandeep Robert Datta, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and a co-author on the paper published in the journal, Science Advances. Further research is ongoing.

2. Why do children seem to ward off the virus?

Common colds have been known to kill children, but oddly, the little ones are not getting overwhelmed by Covid-19. For instance, in Iceland, out of more than 800 samples that were taken from children, none turned positive, while the infection rate in adults was peaking.

A theory among researchers is that the virus cannot make its way into the cells of younger children like it does in adults as children make fewer receptors, called ACE2, which is where the virus invades. Another is that children have smaller lungs that do not push in and out as many droplets as adults’ do.

3. Do Africans have special genetic makeup to make them less vulnerable?

The disease was anticipated to ravage Africans. The poor health systems, heavy disease burden on HIV, TB, cancers and diabetes cast a gloomy outlook. Cases and fatalities have been lower than in developed countries, making scientists explore possibilities that there is a human gene variant that makes them less vulnerable. Other possibilities are under-reported cases.

4. Does one get immunity after getting Covid-19 and for how long?

Harvesting antibodies from people who have had the virus is being considered as one of the treatment options for the disease. Studies show that levels of antibodies against coronavirus remain high for a few weeks after infection.

Doctors got baffled when patients who had tested negative retested positive after a few months. “Studies of other coronaviruses suggest that ‘sterilizing immunity’, which prevents infection, might last for only a matter of months,” reads a report from La Jolla Institute of Immunology in California.

Others suggested that the virus takes a lull in the body and gets reawakened. Nobody knows if once one gets infected, they are ever fully cured.

5. Is the virus mutating and becoming easier to spread?

Viruses typically mutate as a way of survival. Researchers have noted that Covid-19 has developed a mutation named “the D614G mutation”, which occurred on the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it bind and fuse to cells.

The D614G mutation makes it easier for the virus to spread. Medics cannot figure out how fast the mutations are happening and the effect it will have on the vaccines that are being developed.

6. Does the disease have a long-term effect on unborn children?

Records from CDC indicate that pregnant women are more likely to develop severe pneumonia if they get Covid-19. What doctors are yet to establish is how testing positive for the virus affects the unborn baby in the long term and the impact it has on infant mortality rate.

7. Will we find a cure/vaccine and how effective will it be?

This is the question everyone is asking. There are currently more than 200 trials being done globally. Large-scale testing of efficacy is ongoing. What medics are not sure of is if the antibodies that will be produced by the vaccines are high enough to stop new infections, or how long the vaccines will remain active in the body.

8. Why are men more likely to die or get severe cases of Covid-19?

From the figures, even in Kenya, men are getting more infections than women. Scientists still cannot figure out why. A group of historians, anthropologists, social scientists, and philosophers have been analysing cases at the Harvard Gendersci lab that studies health issues and how they affect different genders.

At first, it was attributed to the fact that men are more likely to smoke, hence are predisposed to the disease. Then it spread to populations with non-smokers and men were still more vulnerable. Other theories attributed it to estrogen in women that makes it easier to ward off diseases. Others said women handle stress better. Research is still ongoing on this.

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