No matter where you get your information from, it’s hard to ignore the novel coronavirus, SARS-Co-2, which causes COVID-19. It is front and center of the world’s health news. But what is COVID-19 and how is it related to sepsis? The biggest concern is severe COVID-19 is viral sepsis.
Coronaviruses themselves are not new and for the most part, they aren’t usually serious. The common cold is a coronavirus, for example. But so are more serious infections, like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). What these infections all have in common is their symptoms: coughing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and fever. When a new coronavirus is identified, it’s called a novel coronavirus until it’s given an official name.
What makes this coronavirus special?
COVID-19, which was first discovered in China in December 2019, is a new virus with no previous history. Scientists are scrambling to find the virus origins, how it behaves, and what might kill it or prevent it. Although it has similar symptoms to seasonal influenza, SARS, MERS, and other illnesses, it’s not the same. And because it’s a new virus, scientists are still learning about its spread, how long it lasts, and lingering effects from the infection.
Since the spread of COVID-19 began, new mutations of the virus began to circulate. As of mid-January 2021, researchers have been focusing on new strains originally found in the United Kingdom and South Africa. They also predict there will be more. The UK variant was first found in September 2020 and the SA variant in October. The variants have since been found in other countries, including the United States and Canada.
A more recent mutation was detected in Japan, among four travelers from Brazil, as well as in a city in the Amazon.
At this point, the scientists say that the new strains are not deadlier, but they spread more easily, contaminating more people. This in turn can cause more serious illnesses and deaths. So far, reports from the vaccine manufacturers, the new vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna seem to remain effective.
How serious is COVID-19?
The short answer is “it is very serious.” But, it isn’t for everyone. It appears that most people who contract the virus experience mild to moderate symptoms of coughing, shortness of breath, and fever. But as with most infections, this coronavirus is hitting some people harder than others, causing severe cases of pneumonia, which could trigger viral sepsis and can result in death. As of mid January 2021, over 400,000 people in the United States infected with COVID-19 died.
Accurate statistics may be hard to obtain, as different countries have varying ways of reporting illnesses, or even identifying them. It’s possible that many people have COVID-19 but don’t know it, chalking down their symptoms to a bad cold. So far, it seems those at highest risk of complications, including sepsis, are older people and people with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.
On September 21, 2020, the American Medical Association added the following to their website: “Surviving severe COVID-19 means surviving viral sepsis. And while there is little published data on long-term outcomes of severe COVID-19, what is known is that recovering from sepsis caused by other pathogens is a long and difficult process that includes, among other things, increased odds of cognitive impairment and functional limitations—even down to inability to bathe, toilet or dress independently.”
Are sepsis survivors at higher risk of COVID-19 infection?
Overall, sepsis survivors are at risk of contracting infections within a few months of their recovery. This would include any infection, including COVID-19. However, there is no scientific literature that shows a connection between surviving sepsis and developing the new coronavirus.
Testing for COVID-19
If you have any signs of COVID-19 (cough, fever, shortness of breath) and you have reason to believe you were in contact with someone who was recently in an infected area or is showing signs of illness too, speak with your doctor. Doctors in the United States are working with their state’s public health office and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine who should be tested for the coronavirus.
The fast-spreading infection has many people worried. However, this coronavirus spreads just like other respiratory viruses, like the flu. Therefore, the best way to reduce your risk of infection is by thorough and complete hand washing with soap and water, using a hand sanitizer when you’re not near a sink, and avoiding touching your face (including your eyes) when you are outside.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have said that wearing masks in public is recommended and indoor mask use is mandated in many cities in public spaces. This is not only to prevent the mask wearer from contracting the infection, but asymptomatic people – those who have the virus but do not show any symptoms – are unknowingly spreading the infection. If everyone wears a mask, regardless of symptoms, this lessens the chance of spreading it to others.
Experts say that you can also contract the virus through touch, although they believe the main transmission route is through the air. As you go outside, you may touch a door knob, an ATM, a grocery cart – all which may have the virus on them. You then touch your face and the virus is spread. This is why hand washing is your best defense against infections of this type.
If you have any type of infection, including a respiratory virus like COVID-19, isolate yourself from others to prevent spreading the virus. Rest as much as you can and monitor your progress. If you get worse or show any signs of sepsis, go to your local emergency room or call 911.
Scientists all over the world began working on a vaccine for COVID-19 almost as soon as it was identified. Unlike other vaccine development, which is done in solitary labs over long periods, researchers collaborated with one another, sharing findings. This sped up what they knew about the virus and possible angles to use as a vaccine. Researchers also used an approach that is new to the public, but not to scientists: mRNA technology.
This technology has been studied for 10 years, according to the CDC. Unlike other vaccines that carry live weakened or dead viruses, mRNA vaccines allow the body’s cells to make proteins that trigger an immune response to the COVID-19 virus. This helps the immune system create antibodies against the virus.
There are some misconceptions related to mRNA technology, one being that it changes a person’s DNA. This is not possible.
The advantage to an mRNA vaccine is that it can be produced and adapted quickly to new variants, if necessary.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech was first out of the gate with its 2-step vaccine, closely followed by Moderna, also with a 2-step vaccine.
Other vaccines, using other technologies, are coming soon. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is made from a virus, an adenovirus, that causes colds. When it is injected, the body creates an immune response, so if the recipient is exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19, it should recognize the virus as an intruder and defend the body against it. It is also a 2-step vaccine.
Johnson & Johnson approached its vaccine development in a similar way to the Oxford-AstraZeneca product. But, the J&J vaccine requires only one dose and it is based on an adenovirus. Adenoviruses are common and they cause cold-like symptoms. The same technology was used to develop a vaccine against Ebola.
According to news reports, it’s anticipated that these two vaccines will be approved for emergency use in the United States soon.
To learn more information on the novel coronavirus COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is monitoring the situation closely.
Updated January 21, 2021.