COVID-19: The Contagion of Misinformation

Osmosis Team
Published on Feb 3, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

Explore the COVID-19 virus in a brand new Osmosis video, (now updated on February 14, 2020). We share tips on how to stay safe, assess the social impact of the virus, and address the rumors that have been spreading as fast as the outbreak itself.

Early in December, a person from Wuhan, China became the first known individual to get sick with COVID-19, the virus formerly known as 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCov). Since then, the virus has been spreading rapidly, with thousands of people now infected. Several countries have restricted flights to and from China, and the situation is worsening around the world, with countries like Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the US now on high alert. The WHO has declared the situation a global emergency.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

Recently, Chinese health authorities updated the diagnostic criteria for COVID-19. The diagnostic criteria include exhibiting symptoms of the virus (which you can learn about in our video below), a CT scan showing an infected lung, and results from real-time polymerase chain reaction or rt-PCR tests, a quick test used in many labs and hospitals that can detect very small amounts of viral RNA.

The general public is growing increasingly uneasy about COVID-19, and there’s misinformation and confusion about the situation. So, what’s happening—and what can you do to help? 

Osmosis COVID-19 Video

To get you up to speed on the outbreak, we created this video in collaboration with the University of the Pacific (now with updated content):

Where did COVID-19 originate?

As with other coronavirus outbreaks like SARS and MERS, COVID-19 most likely started with bats, but this time the intermediate host was probably a pangolin, an animal that looks like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo. That’s based on the fact that scientists identified a coronavirus in pangolins that’s a 96 percent genetic match to SARS-CoV-2.

Why are we calling the coronavirus “COVID-19” now?

“Coronavirus” is a generic term for single strand positive-sense RNA viruses with protein spikes on their surface that look a bit like a crown under a microscope—in fact, corona is Latin for crown. These protein spikes allow the virus to invade cells lining the respiratory tract and lungs. After binding, the coronavirus enters and takes over the cellular machinery to make more and more copies of itself so it can spread to the surrounding cells.

When the COVID-19 outbreak began, the public referred to the virus simply as “coronavirus” because we simply didn’t have a good name for it at the time. On February 11, the World Health Organization formally named this new coronavirus disease COVID-19. They chose this name because it doesn’t refer to a geographical location, an animal, a person or group of people—all of which can lead to stigma. The WHO also wanted to make the name internationally pronounceable and related to the disease—not an easy task!

Officially, the virus is called SARS CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, because it’s genetically very similar to the SARS coronavirus which was responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2002. SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19. 

In the case of COVID-19, CO is short for corona, VI is short for virus, D stands for disease, and -19 is the year of origin: 2019. 

How is COVID-19 spreading?

Coronaviruses can spread quickly. Usually the virus spreads when people cough or sneeze, and tiny droplets containing the virus are released. These droplets can land on another person’s mouth, nose, or eyes, and that allows the virus to enter a new person. 

Once a person is infected, symptoms develop an average of five days later. This is called the incubation period. The incubation period varies from person to person, and in some studies, the incubation period lasted as long as 24 days. There’s debate about whether or not asymptomatic people can spread the disease, as these people typically have low levels of circulating virus. But even if they do, asymptomatic transmission likely plays a minor role in the overall epidemic. 

Viruses are given a reproductive number or R-naught based on how quickly they spread, and person-to-person transmission has been confirmed both in and outside of China. An R naught of 1 means that an infected person passes it on to 1 new person, an R-naught of 2 means that 1 person spreads it to 2 new people, and so forth. If the R naught is below 1, the infection peters out, if it’s 1 it stays steady, and if it’s above 1, then it continues to spread. 

The current estimate for the SARS-CoV-2 R naught is between 2 and 2.5. Of course that’s an average, with some spreading the disease less, and others—called super-spreaders—spreading the disease at a much higher rate. The exact cause of these super-spreaders is unclear. Perhaps they are just in contact with more people, perhaps their bodies naturally shed more virus—we just don’t know right now.

What is the mortality rate of COVID-19?

As of February 27, 2020, there have been 82,294 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 2,804 deaths, meaning the disease has an estimated mortality rate of 3.4 percent. For comparison, only about 0.1 percent of people who contract flu end up dying from it. 

The concerning thing about COVID-19 is that it’s a contagious pathogen that is circulating in a number of countries around the world, with a non-negligible mortality rate. There are promising treatments, but a vaccine won’t be available for quite some time.

How can I stay safe?

The WHO has issued guidelines to minimize the risks of contracting COVID-19 for those living in heavily affected areas. Wash your hands frequently with soap or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and if you have to cough or sneeze, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or elbow (not your hands).

If you live in a country where the risk is lesser but you still want to take precautions, wash your hands frequently. Getting a flu shot will also help strengthen your lungs against respiratory infections that may develop while your body is already weakened by COVID-19. 

Coronavirus safety tips.

Should I wear a mask to protect against COVID-19?

In general, wearing a surgical mask is not recommended if you don’t live in a heavily-affected area, because the general risk of getting COVID-19 in these settings is low. Careful hand washing is key and should be done with soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Avoid touching your T-zone—that’s your eyes, nose, and mouth—as this a common entry point for viruses into the body. If there’s any reason to wear a mask, it’s to stop yourself touching your face!

For healthcare workers treating people with COVID-19, the recommendation is to apply droplet and contact precautions. That includes wearing personal protective equipment like a clean, dry surgical mask, gloves, long-sleeved gowns, and eye protection like goggles or a face shield. 

When performing a procedure that generates aerosol, like tracheal intubation, bronchoscopy, CPR, or noninvasive ventilation, it’s important to wear a N95 respirator. This prevents 95 percent of the small particles, like respiratory droplets, from passing through.

Public response to the outbreak

It’s understandable that people have concerns about the outbreak. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how many people are actually infected and how this might play out. What’s especially troubling is how some people are responding to the situation. 

Since the COVID-19 outbreak became news, there’s been a rise in racial discrimination against people of East Asian descent. A Canadian school board had to email an official response to calm “concerned parents” who were demanding that students who visited China be kept home from school. In France, the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I am not a virus”) started trending in response to racist abuse the country’s East Asian communities have been facing in light of the outbreak. In South Korea, some businesses are refusing to allow people of Chinese descent to enter their establishments. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t a new phenomenon. The 2002 SARS outbreak and the MERS outbreak in 2012 both fuelled xenophobia, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories.

If you see posts on social media that you know are false (like the fake news story on bat soup that’s been circulating) or are fuelling racial tension, call the person out and submit a report to the platform hosting the content. If you see these situations happening in real life, consider speaking up or stepping in and intervening if you feel it’s safe to do so.

Woman experiencing the social impacts of the coronavirus.

Continue to have each other’s backs

It’s highly important that we have each other’s backs as the COVID-19 outbreak continues. Be mindful of your personal hygiene, particularly if you’re in frequent contact with immunocompromised people. And, if you can, try to do your part to stop misinformation from spreading.

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