BYU biology professor Brian Poole studies viruses. He said at this point, he thinks it’s too late to keep the coronavirus contained but that it’s not the end of the world.
Future of COVID-19
“I think if we would have had better testing in the beginning, we may have had a little bit more of a chance, but it seems to have slipped free,” Poole said. “I think our best shot now at keeping it under control in the years to come is probably a vaccine.”
He said a vaccine could take at least a year to 18 months to produce, but at least eight different companies are currently working on one.
Poole said he feels that COVID-19 is past the threshold of containment because cases are popping up out of nowhere. He pointed to the U.S. — where there are several thousand cases confirmed, but the actual number of cases could be 10 times more than — as an example.
“This virus is transmitted by water droplets. So as it gets hotter, those may dry up quicker, and then it may be more difficult to spread.” This still isn’t certain, however, since Australia is seeing an increased presence of the virus during their warmer months.
Poole said he thinks that people without symptoms are able to spread the coronavirus because it’s growing so fast. One study he read found that three people with the virus who weren’t showing symptoms had three times as much of the virus as other people.
COVID-19 could also mutate like the flu. The speed at which or the effect those changes could have is still unknown, but it could definitely happen, he said. “The flu can do a specific type of genetic reassortment called antigenic shift that allows it to sometimes change very quickly, which this virus can’t do, but coronavirus will likely continue changing somewhat as it spreads.”
Learning From the Past
Poole said he didn’t expect a global pandemic to happen when the virus was first discovered. “I wouldn’t say it caught people by surprise because there was always a possibility. But I think that it was a little unexpected in terms of how much it spread, not that it happened, but just in terms of how much happened so quickly.”
There hasn’t been anything quite like the coronavirus in our history, Poole said. “This one (COVID-19) is very easily spreading, but this isn’t super deadly as far as our historical plagues go, so it’s kind of unique.”
The closest thing would be the SARS outbreak several years ago. “I personally thought it was going to be similar to SARS,” he said. “We were able to contain SARS to just a few places and basically stamp it out, and it went away. I don’t see that happening here. I think it’s going to just kind of keep circulating.”
Poole said the reason why it’s important to keep the virus under control now is because it’s impacting everyone for the first time simultaneously, which overwhelms the medical system. “Hopefully in years to come, even if it sticks around, it won’t do that,” Poole said. “It will be more spread out more like the flu is. It won’t be as big of a shock to the system, and if we get a vaccine, that will help, too.”
While COVID-19 is slightly more contagious than the flu, it isn’t the most contagious virus. The measles is 25 times more contagious than COVID-19, according to Poole. “The coronavirus can stay in the air for a couple of hours, but measles can stay airborne for days,” he said.
COVID-19 is transmitted through tiny droplets that people cough out, and those droplets eventually fall to the ground or dry up. “If you keep about a six-foot radius around yourself, then those droplets can’t really get to you very much,” Poole said.
The main way people seem to be contracting the virus is through touching things or other people since COVID-19 can live for several hours on metal surfaces and up to two days on cardboard, Poole said.
“They’ve been doing testing in the lab. Obviously, labs are not the same as real life. But it can last for quite a while.”
The virus is killed by heat at 133 degrees, Poole said. He said his wife read an article that recommended sticking a hairdryer up your nose to kill the virus. “That is not true. Don’t do that,” he said.
A lot of young people think they’re safe from the virus and that it’s an older-person virus, but younger people tend to not have as many symptoms.
“If you’re young and healthy and not feeling bad, that doesn’t mean you’re not carrying the virus around and giving it to other people who might be more susceptible,” he said. “It’s hard to take something seriously until you can see it. But what’s happening right now is what’s going to affect things in a week.”
Poole recommends those who are skeptical of the virus read some of the stories coming out of Italy.
“The more distancing you can do, the better. Hand-washing still works, that’s the best way to avoid getting it yourself,” he said. “And as before, it’s still probably not going to kill you, but you don’t want to be the person who gives it to somebody who then suffers from it.”
For those struggling with social distancing, Poole suggests using social media and enjoying nature. Social distancing doesn’t just mean staying inside all day.
“We don’t need to hoard things and act like this is the end of the world because it isn’t. It’s a disease. Some people are going to get sick and some people will probably die, but we’ll get through it,” he said.
Poole plans to teach more about COVID-19 in his infection and immunity class this semester, where he teaches about a lot of different viruses. He recommends the World Health Organization and the Johns Hopkins coronavirus resources to anyone wanting to learn more about the virus. Poole was also recently featured in a video about COVID-19 from the BYU Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology.