A Q&A with Virologist & Immunologist Alessandro Sette:
Alessandro Sette is a virologist and immunologist at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology. He has devoted more than 30 years of study towards understanding the immune response, measuring immune activity, and developing disease intervention strategies against cancer, autoimmunity, allergy, and infectious diseases.
There is a lot of fear surrounding Coronavirus. Schools are closing, major events are being cancelled, companies are telling workers to work remotely. Is this severe of a response necessary?
I strongly support defensive measures that contribute to slow the spread of the virus. Waiting until the problem is hard to manage would be, by definition, too late. I must say that measures such as those are expected by definition to reduce or slow the spread of the infection, which is key to reduce the overall burden. Also note that a drastic sudden rise in sick people that need specialized care could overwhelm the system.
How concerned should people actually be?
They should be concerned, as the number of infections is likely to continue to rise and the situation likely to get worse before it gets better. Modifying behavior is a reasonable and responsible thing to do. I would say an imperative; but I would not panic.
Is there a difference in the experience of coronavirus if you’re young and healthy vs. if you’re older and if you have chronic disease?
The data reported by all sources I have seen agrees with very dramatic differences, with 100-fold higher risk of death for older people and people with preexisting conditions.
How does the Coronavirus pandemic compare to other major viruses like Ebola, SARS, and the 2009 outbreak of the Swine Flu?
Ebola and SARS were never a pandemic – epidemic transmission not due to travel-transmission in all continents. To clarify, SARS-CoV-2 is the proper name of the “coronavirus” and COVID2019 is the name of the disease caused by the virus, just like the flu is caused by the influenza virus.
Ebola and influenza are very different in terms of their genealogy tree, and they look different, infect different cells and are transmitted differently. The “old” virus called SARS is also a corona virus (proper scientific name is SARS-CoV) and as you can tell from the name a very close relative of SARS-CoV-2.
It seems like the news is focused on people dying from Coronavirus. If infected with coronavirus, can you survive it and recover? And how do rates compare to influenza?
The data reported that I have seen is fairly consistent with an overall death rate in the 2-4%. This a means an overall survival of 98-96%. Death rate for older and at risk people have been reported to exceed 10%; this is a 90% chance of survival, better than with SARS-CoV.
The 2-4% rate is much higher than the flu, which is typically around 0.1% (20-40 fold less). So, 2-4% is less than other Beta-coronaviruses; SARS-CoV was around 10%, and MERS was up to 30%. The reason why these rates are so high is probably because Beta-coronaviruses are not usually infecting humans (their original host was likely bats and other animals).
Influenza has infected humans for a long time and learned to coexist with humans. From the point of view of a virus, to kill its host is not a good thing, and the most successful microbes do not kill their host but rather coexist. In that respect, another family of coronaviruses (alphacoronaviruses) is commonly infecting humans and causes only minor colds and respiratory symptoms (usually in children and much less severe than the flu).
There are a lot of myths about Coronavirus online, and shared on social media because of their dramatic headlines. What news sources can people actually trust for reliable information?
I tend to stay away from sensationalism. Stick with primary sources like WHO (worldwide) and the CDC (US). And don’t let what’s going on far away from you get you scared – look at the status in your immediate area. For us here in San Diego, it’s the county website.
What are some constructive ways that people can protect themselves, their families, and their communities?
The page set up by the CDC is really the best resource. It covers all the questions you could possible have!