COVID-19: Relax, Mike Pence is in charge

Updated: Jun 10

By the time you read this, some of this information may be outdated. That said, I’ll jump in anyway. Unless you have just beamed down from another planet, you are well aware of the global COVID-19 epidemic caused by the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2. Perhaps someone out there was comforted by learning that Mike Pence was placed in charge of managing the US response to the epidemic. I was not.


Such things are best left to people who know what they’re doing, like the doctors and scientists at the CDC, the NIH, and academic institutions. Watching the recent press conference on the COVID-19 situation given by Donald Trump would have been amusing had it not involved something so serious. While he significantly understated the number of cases in the US, and said the number of cases here was decreasing, officials from the CDC and NIH stood next to him and gave higher numbers, while sharing data about the increasing number of cases. Trump stood side-by-side with these dedicated doctors, each “side” contradicting the other. While Drs. Schuchat and Fauci warned of probable spread of COVID-19 throughout the US, Trump downplayed that possibility, as if lying about it would somehow influence the behavior of the virus. Dr. Schuchat looked nervous standing next to Trump, as if she was afraid to say something he might not approve of. Already, a health care worker who pointed out deficiencies in the isolation procedures at Travis AFB had been transferred in retaliation to her warning. Going forward, all information regarding the epidemic is supposed to be cleared by Pence, a proposition I find downright scary.


I believe the main motivation behind Trump’s decision to hold the press conference was the spectacular stock market plummet. Supply chains have been interrupted. GDP growth has gone south. While I believe the economy will recover, there will be no making up for the loss in economic growth.


Trump’s downplaying of the epidemic appears to be a desperate attempt to will the economy to turn around. In case it doesn’t, Trump pathetically tried to blame the stock market decline on the Democratic presidential debate. He knows that many of supporters are under the impression that he is responsible for our so-called booming economy, as judged by low unemployment and high stock market. These findings are in actuality a continuation of the economic growth started under the Obama administration, further fueled by Trump’s insistence on low interest rates, the latter affording us very little ability to lower interest rates to stimulate the economy if there is an economic downturn. Additionally, our low tax rate gives us little wiggle room to stimulate the economy by decreasing taxes even more.


It is worth noting that Trump’s dismantling of the epidemic monitoring and command group set up by Obama here as well as abroad (including China) has likely made the epidemic worse, and therefore the stock market plunge more severe. I think it is fair to say that at least some of the negative economic effects of the epidemic have nothing to do with him, similar to his lack of causation for much of our recent economic “success”.


No one knows exactly how bad this epidemic will be. Hopefully, it will fizzle out as we enter the spring season, much as flu season begins to dissipate then. There is, however, a lot of uncertainty and we must be prepared and be able to count on the information our government gives us. This should not be a political matter, but Trump is turning it into one. I, for one, trust the doctors and scientists. While I am not familiar with Dr. Schuchat, Dr. Fauci has a long record of accomplishments. He was a major investigator during the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s and beyond and has advanced our knowledge in the field of virology considerably. I trust what he has to say. He is not a known liar.


Is this Armageddon? Is this going to be a repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu? I doubt it will be that bad, but we should be vigilant and prepared. We need to have a unified source of information we can trust (for a glimpse of what can happen when the government lies to the public, see my previous blog on Chernobyl).


For those of you not in the medical field, you might enjoy taking the following quiz to test your general knowledge of viruses and the current epidemic.


1. Are viruses alive? Do they all contain DNA?

2. Are antibiotics effective in treating viral infections?

3. What is the death rate of COVID-19 compared to flu?

4. Did COVID-19 originate in birds, like most strains of the flu?

5. Is there any medication that can fight off COVID-19?

6. How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

7. Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

8. What happened to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome)?


Answers:


1. No and no. Most scientists do not consider viruses to be alive. At best, they occupy a gray area between living and non-living, because they do not grow and cannot replicate without using the apparatus found in the living cells they infect.


Viruses contain a nucleic acid, either RNA or DNA, which can be double-stranded or single-stranded. The COVID-19 virus contains single-stranded RNA. RNA viruses appear to mutate more easily than DNA viruses.


2. No. antibiotics work against bacteria. They do not affect viruses.


3. Current information indicates COVID-19 kills about 2% of people infected. This is likely an overestimation, as there have probably been many infected people who have not been included in this determination. Lethality is highest in older persons. Interestingly, there have been no recorded deaths in young children.


The flu kills about 0.1% of those infected. As there is much more information available on the flu, this is probably a fairly accurate number. The very young and very old are most susceptible to the flu.


Death rates from the flu in the US:

2017-2018: 79,000

2018-2019: 34,000

2019 -2020 (so far): 12,000 to 30,000


4. Every year, a new variety of the flu arises, usually from birds in Asia. The origin of the COVID-19 virus has not yet been determined. The latest theory is that it spread from bats to Chinese pangolins to humans. Pangolins are odd scaly mammals on the endangered species list. In China, they are poached for their meat and scales. The coronavirus found in pangolins has a 99% match with the virus responsible for the current outbreak.


5. There is a smattering of anti-viral drugs, perhaps the best-known being Tamiflu which is used to treat the flu. A Trial for treating COVID-19 with the investigational antiviral treatment remdesivir, made by Gilead, has started. It has shown promise in animals for treating other coronaviruses.


Interestingly, remdesivir appeared to be promising in treating Ebola virus, but is no longer used for that as it is less effective than another treatment that was developed.

6. Symptoms of COVID-19 are non-specific, and the infection therefore cannot be diagnosed without a sophisticated laboratory test. This test is not currently available for widespread use.


7. There is no current vaccine. A new vaccine by Moderna Therapeutics will be ready for clinical trials soon. If all goes well a vaccine will be widely available in 12 to 18 months (in contrast to Trump’s claim that we are “very close” to having a vaccine).


8. Many of us remember when SARS hit the news at the end of 2002. The outbreak caused almost 800 deaths (there are already more deaths caused by COVID-19). The SARS virus, also a coronavirus, has been traced to Yunnan province bats, who passed it to civets, the source of human infections. There have been no reported cases of SARS since 2004.


MERS, caused by another coronavirus, was first identified in 2012. It arose in the Middle East and appears to be lethal in approximately 1/3 of those infected. This is likely an overestimate, as many cases may have gone unreported. It doesn’t spread as easily as SARS or COVID-19. MERS appears to have arisen in bats and spread to humans by camels. There is no vaccine, and new cases continue to be reported. However, the number of cases appears to be low.

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