The following interview was published on March 2nd and reflects information of the time it was written. We list our actions and public statements on the subject on the Institute’s dedicated COVID-19 page. In addition, we recommend that everyone keep an eye on the coronavirus government information website, which provides up-to-date information on the epidemic, prevention and other important information.
After she had shared her knowledge on the subject with the public through a number of media outlets in the past few weeks, we discussed the most important questions related to the coronavirus with our colleague, Head of Milestone Lower House, evolutionary biologist Dr Orsolya Molnár. As a researcher of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Centre for Ecological Research, Orsolya works on the prevention of epidemics, such as the spreading of the coronavirus.
Let’s start with the basics: what is the coronavirus?
There’s no such thing as “the coronavirus”. An extraordinarily high number of strains belong to the family of coronaviruses, and while some of these cause human illnesses, some don’t, at least to our current knowledge. What’s behind the ongoing epidemic is a strain that has appeared recently, and which very likely has been transmitted to humans from some sort of animal carrier. Just to give you a context: both common cold, and the much more severe respiratory illness SARS are both caused by different strains of the coronavirus.
How does the virus spread?
All the coronaviruses we know today spread via droplets. This means that it infects through bodily fluids, saliva, sneeze, cough, or even sweat. This, of course, doesn’t mean that this type of coronavirus is present in every coughing person; it only spreads this way from those who are already infected.
How can we protect ourselves?
In public discourse, they usually speak of prevention, but by prevention we mean the prevention of the epidemic. Once the infestation has begun, it is only possible to avoid getting infected. At the moment, the best way to avoid infection is not visiting affected territories. Today, the closest country to us with a large number of infection cases is Italy, more specifically its northern region. For the time being, it is not recommended to travel to that region: even if you have a pre-booked trip, you should rather reschedule it – don’t take risks.
If we must travel to regions where we need to change flights at high traffic airports, washing hands regularly is highly recommended, with travel hand sanitisers, for instance. We usually recommend avoiding restaurants in such places: it is advisory to consume pre-packed and sealed food and drinks instead.
Should we wear masks?
Mask is only a bit better than nothing. It doesn’t protect us from viruses possibly sneezed on us. What it does is that it contains a certain extent of the germs we sneeze out. It is true for every virus that the microscopic drops enclosing them can enter the body through the gap between the mask and the skin, or through the mucous membranes of the eye.
Actually, how dangerous is this virus?
The virus’ mortality is currently 3 percent. The infection primarily endangers the elderly over 55-60 years of age, and the chronically ill. Thus, we should definitely not be afraid of seeing severe illnesses in large numbers. The only real danger is that as asymptomatic carriers we infect a person vulnerable to the virus.
How much can we believe officially communicated data when it comes to the number of coronavirus cases?
At the moment, there are more than 90,000 confirmed cases worldwide. We must know, though, that this is the number of people who showed the symptoms, asked for health care service from some sort of medical institution, and whose tests for coronavirus came back positive. Fortunately, this coronavirus strain has a very low mortality rate, so those showing serious symptoms are a minority, and even from that group, not everybody got into medical care. Thus, it is very likely that in fact much more people are infected, but they are very difficult to identify as there are no signs of the presence of the virus in their bodies.
What should we expect in Hungary?
We don’t know the number of latent cases in Hungary at the moment, apart from the known cases. However, as the government and the surgeon general’s office have already taken several precautionary measures, it is unlikely that it would cause mass health damages here. As of 4th March 2020 the government has launched the website koronavirus.gov.hu where we can track the development of the virus.
Can we on our own differentiate between flu and coronavirus infection based on the symptoms?
By the respiratory symptoms, we definitely cannot. The ideas one can hear of, that different germs can be identified based on a cough or a runny nose are unfounded. The only symptoms that are typical of flu, but haven’t been experienced during coronavirus infection are vomiting and diarrhoea. If we experience such symptoms, the likelihood of having been infected with coronavirus is decreased. It is worthwhile to have ourselves tested if we spent time in infected areas, and/or we experience the symptoms.
During this time of the year, our students often travel abroad to conferences or international competitions. What precautionary measures you would recommend them to take?
I recommend them not to travel to highly infected regions: China, Northern Italy, and the Austrian province of Tirol; avoid them as destination, and don’t even travel through them if possible. If the trip cannot be cancelled, make sure to keep all the hygienic instructions I mentioned before: regular wash of the hands, and consuming pre-packed food. It is true for the students, too, that they should avoid airport restaurants. At the moment, there’s no need to take further precautions, but it is worth following the news on the epidemic, as regulations will change along with the changing of the situation.