• Australia's coronavirus death toll has risen to four. (Moment RF)
What is the difference between coronavirus and COVID-19? Does surviving COVID-19 make you immune to it? Should you still wear a mask, even if you're not sick? We have the answers from the experts to all your coronavirus questions.
By
Rae Johnston

Source:
NITV News
24 Mar 2020 - 8:44 PM  UPDATED 26 Mar 2020 - 5:37 PM

As the Coronavirus pandemic dominates the news, we are still learning new information about what it is, how it spreads, and what we can do to protect ourselves. With misinformation to the latest science shared in equal measure on social media, it's difficult to tell the difference.

So we've gathered together the latest answers to your questions from the experts in disease control and public health to separate fact from fiction.

Here is everything you need to know about coronavirus, COVID-19, what the difference is and what signs to look out for.

What is the difference between coronavirus and COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that include Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). These can range from the common cold to more severe diseases.

COVID-19 is the disease caused by a new coronavirus, named SARS-CoV-2.

 

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include a cough, sore throat, fever and shortness of breath. Those infected may feel completely fine, like they have a mild cold - or develop full-blown pneumonia. Some people will recover easily, some will not recover.  

This symptom checker is a handy resource if you are concerned.

 

How does it spread?

When someone infected by the virus coughs or sneezes, droplets of saliva containing coronavirus leave the body. The virus can live on surfaces - doorknobs, elevator buttons, your hand. This is why it's so important to cough or sneeze into a tissue or - if one isn't available - your elbow. And wash your hands regularly. 

 

Does surviving COVID-19 make you immune?

Professor Ian Henderson, the Director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at The University of Queensland is a Professor of Microbiology, and founder and former Director of the UK's largest Microbiology and Infection institute, the Institute of Microbiology and Infection.

Professor Henderson said the simple answer to this question is: we do not know yet.

"It seems likely that infection will generate protective immunity, at least in the short-term, and in the absence of virus mutation," said Professor Henderson. "There have been rare reported cases of reinfection, where an infected individual seems to have recovered but then tests positive for the virus later, for reasons that are unclear."

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"However, the general consensus amongst experts is that recovery from infection is likely to result in subsequent protection; the reinfection observation is unlikely to have occurred and probably results from a testing regime that gave a false negative result at the time of recovery."

Professor Stuart Tangye, Leader of the Immunity & Inflammation Theme and Head of the Immunology & Immunodeficiency Lab at the Garvan Institute of Medical research and a Professor at St Vincent's Clinical School Faculty of Medicine at UNSW Sydney, elaborated on this. 

"Infection with COVID19 certainly activates your immune system. Viruses typically do induce immune protection, and this is certainly the case for other types of coronaviruses," Professor Tangye said.

"At this stage, we are still in the process of fully characterising the nature of an immune response that occurs after infection with SARS-CoV-2. Some studies have found markers in the blood that would indicate virus-induced immune response. But whether this immune response will be protective in the long term is unclear."

Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, a Professor in the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University and Research Director at Vaxine, said a recent monkey study out of China showed promising results. 

"Two weeks after they recovered from the first infection, [tests] showed they were protected from the second infection. This demonstrates that COVID-19 induces at least short term immune protection against reinfection."

Professor Petrovsky was quick to point out that monkeys get a much milder COVID-19 infection than most humans, with no temperature rise or serious illness. So we don't know if this result is what would also happen in humans. 

Dr Clovis Palmer, a Senior Monash University Fellow and head of the Immunometabolism and Inflammation Laboratory at the Burnet Institute said there is no evidence of developing immunity to SARS-CoV-2 after recovering from COVID-19.

"In fact in some patients there seems to be a relapse or reinfection," said Dr Palmer. "The situation is fluid and more work needs to be done to understand how the virus interacts with its host."

 

I'm not sick. Should I still wear a mask?

Professor Henderson said masks help protect healthcare workers, but there are conflicting studies about the effectiveness of face masks in protecting the general population.

"The general consensus is that the use of masks by non-infected individuals offers limited value in controlling the spread of infection within the community," said Professor Henderson.

"Indeed, they may give a false sense of security, they may be worn inappropriately, they can promote touching of the face, all of which give rise to a higher risk of infection."

Professor Thompson said the advice from the Australian Department of Health and the Chief Medical Officer is correct.

"Panic buying of masks is stopping supply to the hospitals, which really do need them."

 

Why is "flattening the curve" important?

Dr Trish Campbell, a Research Fellow at The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity said "flattening the curve" means slowing the spread of disease down, so that the demand on healthcare channels is more evenly distributed over time, rather than being experienced as a sharp peak.

"If we can reduce the number of infections occurring each day, then more of the people who need hospital beds and intensive care beds will be able to access them."

Professor Henderson pointed out that hospital services have limited numbers of healthcare workers, beds, specialist equipment, and ventilators.

 

What are the best ways for individuals and communities to do this?

Associate Professor Vally said the best way for us to flatten the curve is to "act decisively to prevent the spread of infection."

Dr Campbell said individuals need to reduce their risk of infection.

"One way to do this is to practise good hygiene, including washing hands thoroughly and frequently, not touching faces, and coughing and sneezing into elbows or tissues," said Dr Campbell.

"Another way of reducing infection is through social distancing, which includes staying at home if unwell, avoiding non-essential gatherings and minimising physical contact." 

Professor Thompson agreed.

"The best thing to do is the simple things like hand washing and hand sanitising. Social distancing. If you are sick then isolate - staying at home is perfectly fine. Keep a distance from each other."

"It is very similar to having a horrible cold. If you have a horrible cold you don't want to give it to anyone and if you know someone with a horrible cold you normally don't want to catch it, so you distance yourself. Don't shake hands or kiss each other."

 

What works to contain the spread?

Professor Henderson said effective handwashing is essential.

"The use of soap and proper handwashing for at least 20 seconds is the most effective means of removing virus particles from your hands. In the case of children, supervised handwashing may be appropriate."

Professor Henderson also advises to avoid touching your face.

"While there is much still to learn about the route of transmission, it is possible that this virus is not only spread through inhalation of viral particles but may enter the body through other soft tissue routes such as the eyes and lips." 

"It is also possible that the virus is shed in faeces and so washing hands after visiting the bathroom is crucial."

Previous experience, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic, have revealed that social-distancing approaches were effective in controlling diseases, according to Professor Henderson.

"The efforts of the Chinese state in implementing and enforcing social distancing have been remarkable in suppressing the number of cases. They have taken extraordinary steps to protect their populations and to prevent the spread of the virus. These extreme social distancing measures have worked in the immediate term." 

Professor Henderson said Government interventions, like event closures, play a crucial role. 

"However, individual behaviours are even more important. Healthy people should stay 6 feet away from other people whenever possible. They should reduce unnecessary interactions; work from home where possible, have meetings via the internet, avoid physical contact."

As seen in China, when the restrictions are lifted there is the potential for a second wave of infections "as people who were naïve to the infection suddenly encounter the virus and transmission occurs again," Professor Henderson warned.

"This may result in apparent higher mortality rates as those who are susceptible stop self-isolating and rejoin the general population."

 

Why does it take so long time to build a vaccine?

"Vaccines are the single largest contributor to increased life expectancy in the last century," said Professor Henderson. "However, the development of safe and effective vaccines is challenging."

An effective vaccine must:

  • Boost immunity and sustain protection over long periods.
  • Protect those groups of people most at risk, such as the elderly.
  • Not make the infection worse.
  • Be capable of being produced in large quantities.

"Unfortunately, it simply takes time to develop the vaccine, to ensure its safety and efficacy, and to produce sufficient quantities," said Professor Henderson.

"Arguably, the vaccine we are most familiar with is the seasonal flu vaccine. It is produced in millions of doses every year using a well-established process. Yet, even with the pathways for production, and with safety and efficacy procedures already established, it takes 6 months to produce."

Professor Henderson said there are now 15 potential vaccine candidates in the pipeline globally, using a wide range of technology. It will take at least six months for most of these potential vaccines to start phase 1 clinical trials.

"The vaccines funded by Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), such as the vaccine being developed by The University of Queensland, are likely to reach trials the quickest," said Professor Henderson.

"The next challenge will be finding enough production capacity globally to produce these competing vaccines, at a scale that millions or even billions of people can be vaccinated."

If you have any questions about coronavirus, email rae.johnston@sbs.com.au and we'll get them answered by the experts.

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