Fear or denial? The facts about viruses
Research Models
Kévin Dhondt

Fear or denial? The facts about viruses

Education is the way to combat too much fear and too little care

At a time when fear and panic spread faster than viruses themselves, it is necessary to take a step back and understand these unseen enemies. The fear that they provoke is related to the fact that viruses are so tiny that no one can see them unless we use extra powerful electronic microscopes. Their “invisibility” can trigger two opposite human behaviors: either fear or denial. Fear that every surface could contain the virus, or denial that prompts people to ignore the warnings and therefore place others at risk.

I remember extremely well these two conflicting feelings when, during my PhD, I was trained in the Jean Mérieux Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory of Lyon, France. I was fearful to manipulate such deadly viruses as Ebola or Nipah - while my eyes told me there was no danger as they only saw plastic tubes filled with “water” (culture medium).

But human feelings are what they are and to keep them under control there is no other option than education. Education destroys fear and panic while helping to correctly assess the risk when exposed to a real danger. I would like then to share with you some basic knowledge on viruses that will help you to deal with the pandemic we are living through now, as well as ones we may face in the future.

Viruses do not live

Viruses are exclusive intrinsic parasites, meaning that they are not “alive” when outside the body of a living organism. They are like a piece of meat: nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, water, etc. It is of major importance since, unlike bacteria that live and multiply in the environment, viruses cannot reproduce themselves. One virus out of a sick person is only one virus in the environment.

Viruses do not fly

Viruses do not have wings, legs or arms. They cannot move in the environment they were expelled in. If they want to contaminate someone, they need to rely on the host to touch a contaminated surface and bring the hand to a sensitive area (mainly mouth, nose or eyes). They can also trigger expelling symptoms such as cough to spread more easily and increase the chance to reach a new host. The SARS-CoV 2 virus responsible for CoVID-19 (CoronaVirus Disease 2019) does not spread in the air nor in the water.

Coronaviruses are fragile

Coronaviruses are surrounded by a lipidic envelope to protect them outside of the body. This envelope is really fragile and highly sensitive to detergent, such as soap or hydroalcoholic gel. Its lipidic components also make it sensitive to oxidation from the air. External proteins (known as spikes) that allow the virus to enter the cells are also very sensitive in the environment especially to warm temperature. Based on that, scientists consider the virus not viable after only 3 hours in the environment. Some papers mention higher survival rate (a few days) but they are based on detection of nucleic acids, which are not infectious when amputated from the envelope or spikes.

Barrier measures are efficient

Based on the three previous facts, we can efficiently protect ourselves and others from contamination with very simple measures:

  1. Wash your hands regularly and efficiently with soap or hydroalcoholic gel: this will destroy the envelope of the virus and then you will not be prone to contaminate yourself by transferring the virus from your hands to your face.
  2. Cough or sneeze into your elbow: you will then limit the spread into the environment and as you usually do not do so many things with your elbow you will not contaminate your environment (remember viruses do not fly, climb or walk on your clothes).
  3. Avoid any physical contact outside of your close family circle: the virus is kind of “sticky”. If you remove physical contact such as handshakes, hugs, etc., you will remove a major contamination path of the virus.
  4. Keep at least at 1 meter (~3 feet) between people: the coronavirus is mainly expelled by cough, sneeze and splutters. Fortunately, the mucus particles in which the virus is concentrated and protected are quite heavy and generally do not fall beyond 1 meter of distance from the mouth. If you keep at this distance from each other, you should be protected.
  5. Use single-use tissues: it would be bad if you keep a collection of viruses protected in their mucus in your pocket. Viruses are not recommended as companion animals. Throw them away immediately!
  6. Limit any movement to the strict minimum: social distancing has been proven as the most effective measure to contain viral spreads. Stay home as much as possible, postpone any family visit or event and do not gather with friends. It is a citizen’s responsibility to protect the weakest of our societies.

Be wary of fake news

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can trigger mass behaviors which can be very profitable for people making money on those feelings or earning money from advertisement flux. Please carefully consider any information you find on a non-specialized website especially when it deals with miracle cure or conspiracy theory. Fortunately, there are a few very useful websites you should consider before any other when dealing with CoViD19 :

Understand the data

Keep a critical eye on any epidemiological figure you can find. Especially when they are out of context, figures can be manipulated to make them say what you want them to say. You should remember that figures are specific from a lot of factors such as geographic region, timeframe, demographic situation (especially pyramid of age), health system, governmental control, culture, etc. It is really difficult to compare one country to another as people’s behaviors are culturally very different and viral spreading is mainly related to these behaviors. No one can predict from the epidemic curve in a country what would be the situation in another one. If you want to track figures, please consult the WHO website.

One last thing to consider with figures is their imperfection. They rely on declaration efficiency and detection methods that could be different between countries (based on symptoms only or based on formal biological detection for example). Figures are often presented as absolute numbers but in real life they are uncertainty intervals. It is different to consider a lethality rate of 2.3% than a lethality rate of 2.3% +/- 0.2% i.e. [2.1 – 2.5] than a lethality rate of 2.3% +/- 2% i.e. [0.3 – 4.3]. Remember to be careful and switch your critical thinking on!

Epidemics are highly dynamic

While we need to freeze situations to analyze and generate knowledge on them, the virus continues to spread, multiply, mutate. It is obvious that the knowledge of yesterday will never be more reliable than the knowledge of tomorrow. We should keep learning and make the effort to maintain our level of information with the most updated situation.

Viruses and humanity share the same world. But not all pandemics are so fast as the situation we face with SARS-CoV 2. Our footprint on the environment continues to impact the habitat of viral reservoirs, and emergence of new viruses will continue to arise. In a globalized world, a virus well adapted to the human host will take the advantage of our multiple exchanges to spread as effectively as SARS-CoV 2. Increasing our knowledge on viruses will help us to “live” with them and adapt our behaviors to limit their emergence and control their spreading. It is our individual responsibility to protect our relatives, colleagues and friends by restricting temporarily our social interactions and applying barrier measures during an epidemic phase. Viruses are not visible but they are real, they are an inexhaustible source of delusion and fighting them starts with your mind and discipline.