The novel coronavirus is still a mystery to us. This is surprising given the sheer amount of research and intellectual firepower being thrown at the virus worldwide.
In dozens, if not hundreds of countries, doctors and scientists and researchers are working around the clock to figure out what the novel coronavirus truly is — and how it does what it does.
And yet, as of now, we still don’t know how the virus really works, or what it is fully capable of.
“Doctors keep discovering new ways the coronavirus attacks the human body,” the Washington Post reports. “Damage to the kidneys, heart, brain — even ‘covid toes’ — prompts reassessment of the disease and how to treat it.”
The early assumption was that the novel coronavirus was another respiratory virus, with COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus — an affliction of the respiratory tract. If we are dealing with influenza, or some flu-like variant of such, one would expect the virus to attack the lungs and throat.
And yet, with COVID-19, the virus can strike “anywhere from the brain to the toes,” according to the Washington Post.
COVID-19 can cause blood clots, neurological issues (e.g. brain swelling), and strokes. It can weaken heart muscles, impair the liver, destroy kidney function, and wipe out the capacity to taste and smell via impact on the nervous system.
It can trigger an overreactive autoimmune response, in which the body’s white blood cells are tricked into attacking the body itself. It can even attack people’s eyes.
“No one was expecting a disease that would not fit the pattern of pneumonia and respiratory illness,” says the president of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Nor was anyone expecting a disease that can hit young people and children — but here we are.
“We’re seeing a startling number of young people who had a minor cough, or no recollection of viral symptoms at all, and they’re self-isolating at home like they’re supposed to — and they have a sudden stroke,” a University of Toronto radiologist told the New York Times.
Mount Sinai hospital in New York has seen “an unusual number of young stroke victims,” doctors there further reported. Five such young patients, all with COVID-19, were treated for strokes in a two-week period.
Four of the five were in relatively good health, and two, in their 30s, had no known risk factors for strokes. “We came to the conclusion it had to be related to COVID-19,” said Dr. Johanna Fifi, a neurologist.
Meanwhile, healthy and fit adults, in their 30s and 40s, are reporting harrowing ordeals. Here is Michael Yo, a 45-year-old actor in excellent physical condition, describing his COVID-19 experience to Joe Rogan:
“I couldn’t breathe… worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life… if they had an eject button on life, I might have hit it. I was in that much pain. I couldn’t think clearly.”
The general assumption is that those who catch the virus but stay home and avoid being hospitalized are having “mild” versions of COVID-19. But this is not the case.
It’s true there are many asymptomatic cases. But for those who feel it, COVID-19 can hit like a ton of bricks, with painful symptoms that can linger on for weeks.
The virus is attacking children, too.
Fifteen U.S. states, along with five countries in Europe, are investigating COVID-19 cases with an apparent link to Kawasaki disease — an inflammatory disorder that hits children age five and under — and toxic shock syndrome.
“We have lost three children in New York because of this. A 5-year-old boy, a 7-year-old boy and an 18-year-old girl,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
On top of all that, we don’t yet know the extent of long-term damage from COVID-19.
“More than 1 million people around the world have been deemed recovered from the coronavirus,” Bloomberg reports, “but beating the initial sickness may be just the first of many battles for those who have survived.”
“Some recovered patients report breathlessness, fatigue, and body pain months after first becoming infected,” Bloomberg adds. “Small-scale studies conducted in Hong Kong and Wuhan, China, show that survivors grapple with poorer functioning in their lungs, heart, and liver. And that may be the tip of the iceberg.”
And then, last but not least, we don’t know if “herd immunity” is even a valid concept for this virus.
It is entirely possible that antibodies confer immunity to COVID-19, meaning a person can only catch it once. But it’s also possible this is not the case. For some diseases, catching it once is no safeguard against catching it again — and for others, we have never found a vaccine.
We don’t know where COVID-19 will shake out in all this. But it’s possible that herd-immunity status — if and when a country reaches it — is worth nothing.
The good news is that, as a global research project and a worldwide medical emergency, there is arguably more human ingenuity, medical expertise, and scientific firepower being trained on the novel coronavirus, right this very moment, than we have seen with any prior pathogen in human history.
The unsettling part is how shockingly little we know — still — about how the novel coronavirus does what it does, the long-term impacts it can have, and what the long-term ramifications of the pandemic will be.