Updated: Mar 16, 2020
I make my living from gathering a bunch of germ-bag kids in a room and having a magical 40 minutes of story fun. By the end, we're super best friends, and they hug, kiss and lick me whether I want them to or not. I normally regard this as a perk of the job, but the Coronavirus has made me wonder if I might have been better off going into the movie business!
Equally, I have two children of my own. Some of their friends have asthma. My Dad falls into the high-risk bracket because of his age. The media coverage has been alarming, but does that mean that I too should be alarmed?
Can you imagine how bad it would be for business if the Story Storks workshops at Easter were the event that caused a pandemic! I'd never live it down! But joking aside, I have a duty of care to my patrons, and I want to make the right choices in terms of events that I put on. I am seeing major events being cancelled all around me. Should I be doing the same?
The media are in the business of selling papers, so their coverage is rarely comprehensive enough for me to make a fully informed decision. I also have a science degree and, in a previous life, worked with vaccine companies, once appearing on Newsnight as an expert (I was heavily edited so you couldn't tell I was hungover) so I have decided to apply this skillset and investigate it myself. What I found is going to inform my decisions about Story Storks. But it's also had the effect of calming me as a mum, friend and daughter. Given that, I thought that sharing it might pass on a bit of peace of mind to you too.
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, I would remind you that the situation changes daily, so please do check the date on this if you are reading it. We may have already moved on! I've listed some useful sources of information in the references below so that you don't have to try to find your facts amongst the stories. I will start to put stuff on my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/storystorks) and Twitter (@storystorks), to help parents make informed decisions.
WHAT IS CORONAVIRUS?
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that affect mammals and birds. Mostly they cause mild coughs and colds, but some are more deadly. There are a number of coronaviruses that affect humans, COVID-19 being the most recent. SARS is another you may have heard of. MERS is another that you won't have heard of unless you're into this kind of thing! The first coronavirus was discovered in chickens in the 1960s. COVID-19 is a new variant, and so the human population has no immunity. We know about the Coronavirus family, but until it is studied fully the scientists can't say for sure if COVID-19 is a child that behaves just like his father, or the one that is going off the rails!
WHAT DOES INFECTION WITH COVID-19 LOOK LIKE IN ADULTS?
A typical adult infected with the COVID-19 virus first has an incubation period of around 2 to 3 days where they look and feel totally fine. They then develop symptoms including but not exclusively a cough and/or a fever which lasts for around 5 days. The vast majority of people then get better.
A small number go on to a second phase of the illness where they can experience complications such as pneumonia. This is because, instead of calming down, the immune response becomes overzealous and causes damage to the lungs (that's a simple version!). Those most likely to go on to this stage are those labelled as 'The Vulnerable'. This includes those in their 60s, 70s and 80s (I refuse to call them elderly - Grandpa Colin is fitter than some 40 years olds I know and he's in his 80s), and those with underlying health conditions including diseases of the lung, diabetes and heart disease.
The lucky stars amongst you might contract the virus, incubate it nicely and then develop no symptoms whatsoever. You feel fine. You hit the pub. You hug the kids. You hang out with grandma. Eeek!
And there lieth the problem. It's different in different people. It might kill you BUT you might not even notice you've had it! Viruses are sneaky like that.
WHAT DOES INFECTION WITH COVID-19 LOOK LIKE IN A PREGNANT WOMAN?
So far, it looks pretty much the same as in adults who are not pregnant, or pregnant ladies with flu (4). As all pregnant women are under 60 (!) the risk of age is negated. If you have underlying conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease flag them with your midwife and make a plan for yourself. Share that plan with your loved ones. Talk to your other half about the time off work they may need, and get them to have that conversation with their boss now. Write it down, because as you get more pregnant you will forget the plan! Put yourself first - I know that's hard if you already have little ones to look after, but think about the support network that you'll need in place should the worst happen. Do it now whilst you feel OK because organising childcare and food when you feel ill is not where you want to be. If your parents are your first port of call for childcare then try to organise an alternative. If you come down with COVID-19 and give it to them, you would never forgive yourself.
WHAT DOES INFECTION WITH COVID-19 LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN?
The lovely Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty (1), has stated in a press conference (2) that the early data suggests children do become infected, but experience a much milder form of the disease. This is the opposite of flu, where children under 10 are more likely to be hospitalised by flu than their parents - hence the vaccination.
Not only this, but children may be the answer to our prayers. Their immune systems can bat this virus off. If scientists can figure out how they're doing it, then they may be able to use that information to create a cure or vaccine.
On the basis of this evidence, there is no real case for closing schools as, of this very moment in time, it's not children we need to protect! Once the epidemic really hits, then there might be a case, but right now it's more about protecting their grandparents than them. More on that later.
WHAT DOES INFECTION WITH COVID-19 LOOK LIKE IN INFANTS?
This information hasn't been forthcoming, so I can only speculate. Breast-feeding infants will share their mother's immunity which is some reassurance. I will keep researching and asking to get a definitive answer on infants. Once I find it, I'll update this blog post and put it on Twitter and Facebook.
SO WHY ISN'T THERE A VACCINE OR CURE YET?
Vaccines are created by private companies - the pharmaceutical industry. They work in conjunction with our scientists and scientific institutions, but to create a new vaccine and bring it to market costs millions of pounds and takes several years. There are 4 stages of clinical trials, and a vaccine can fail at any one of those 4 stages meaning that it will never make it to market and the company has to absorb the costs with no hope of recuperation through sales.
This means that the market has to be big enough to bear the costs of the research and development of the drug or vaccine. The more people who have the disease, the more likely a vaccine will be developed.
Work started on a vaccine for SARS during the outbreak in 2002/3 but came to a stop when the virus stopped spreading. There have been no cases of SARS reported since 2004 - no market = no vaccine. Work has been going on to create a vaccine for the coronavirus MERS and a product is in the pipeline.
You may find this a bit appalling. Or you may accept it as the way of the world. Knowing I have friends in both camps I'm staying firmly on the fence!
However you feel, take heart, because the world has moved on since SARS. The scientific community is more united than ever (including China), and a massive international effort is going on to develop a vaccine to COVID-19, spearheaded by Dr Kate Broderick, a Scottish-born scientist who now lives in the US and works as Vice President in Research and Development for Inovio Pharmaceuticals (who have also been working on the MERS vaccine). Development is proceeding at a rapid rate thanks to outside investment from government bodies. The vaccine is already in the first stages of trials which aim to prove it is safe. The next stage is to trial it on healthy humans to make sure it raises the correct immune response - this could happen within the year.
THIS IS A HUGE ACHIEVEMENT - THANK-YOU SCIENTISTS
AND it gets better because clinical trials are underway for anti-viral drugs which are already on the market. This is super good news because they have already been proven safe, so the trial process will move along faster. Should one of the anti-virals prove effective, production can be scaled up pretty quickly. It is possible we will see one of these agents licensed for the treatment of COVID-19 within the year.
ANOTHER FANTASTIC ACHIEVEMENT FROM OUR SCIENTIST
I am of course saddened for those families who are mourning a lost one, but I am also incredibly proud of the human endeavour that is going into trying to fight this virus. China's efforts are just phenomenal. Our British born scientists are heading the field. I wish more of this was hitting the headlines.
HOW IS COVID-19 TRANSMITTED (POSH WORDS FOR 'HOW DO I CATCH IT - OR NOT!')
Again, it's early days, but it seems you can catch this virus in the same way as you would catch a cold. It is present in your secretions (delightful!) The main source of transmission is in the droplets that exit your body when you cough and sneeze, but should you find yourself looking after a COVID-19 patient in the future bear in mind it could be any of their bodily fluids and take precautions. It will certainly be in your toddler's snot. If your secretions end up on your hands, then touching another's hand will pass the virus on, unless they wash their hands before they touch their nose, mouth or face.
It has now been accepted into the public consciousness that being within a 2-metre radius of an infected person for a period of time puts you at risk. What the early data is revealing, however, is that transmission is occurring mostly in close groups i.e. your immediate contacts. One infected person is likely to infect 2 or 3 others (2).
I don't know about you, but I'm surprised by that. I thought one infected person on the 85 bus would bring the whole route to a stop, but it doesn't seem to be panning out that way. That said, I'm not ready to take the Dettol spray out of my handbag just yet!
Transmission from person to person is much more likely to happen indoors, and in smaller rooms, than in large outdoor stadiums.