Kathriona Devereux: So much confusion, but science WILL solve the Covid-19 puzzle

Reading something about Covid-19 one day and a seemingly contradictory fact the next day can be unsettling and frustrating, but there is nothing sinister in this, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: So much confusion, but science WILL solve the Covid-19 puzzle

Scientist Doireann Loughlin-Waldron with Leo Varadkar during his recent visit to the National Virus Refrence Laboratory in Dublin.

IN the supermarket, a man wearing a face mask whispered in my ear that I should wear gloves pushing my trolley.

My heart jumping at his too-close-for-comfort warning, I moved two metres away and informed him I’d sanitised my hands and thoroughly wiped the trolley with an antibacterial wipe.

A few minutes later, I witnessed another man forgoing a basket carrying his few essentials in his arms. He couldn’t quite manage everything so he carried a bag of crisps in his mouth before placing it on the conveyor belt.

I watched, appalled, as the bag sat on the conveyor belt, was handled by the check, out worker and he gathered up his shopping, popped his crisp bag back into his mouth, and scurried away.

I went home, scrubbed my hands, washed or wiped every item I bought and despaired.

Some people are so vigilant, they are frightening other shoppers about wearing gloves, and others are so flagrantly oblivious, you wonder have they even heard of the small matter of the Covid-19 crisis raging across the world.

Safefood, the public body responsible for raising consumer awareness of issues relating to food safety and healthy eating, says my washing and wiping of grocery items is unnecessary, and hand-washing remains the best approach to limit the spread of the virus on surfaces.

But after witnessing the oblivious shopper, it’s hard not to let my imagination of viral spread run away.

We are learning more about how Covid-19 works. Answers to how long the virus survives on surfaces, how the virus triggers the immune system, why some people have a mild illness and others die, and which drugs work best at treating patients, are evolving every day.

Doctors, scientists and public health officials are trying to keep up with the emerging science, as well as fight a pandemic on the frontline in hospitals.

In normal circumstances, science moves pretty slowly. A scientist (or more usually a team of scientists) discovers something new and shares it with the wider scientific community. The wider community asks lots of questions — “Does this fit with other findings?”, “Can this result be replicated by others?”, “Does it apply to a wider group of people?”

After a while, evidence mounts that yes this new discovery is real and it becomes accepted science. Or not.

Reading something about Covid-19 one day and a seemingly contradictory fact the next day can be unsettling and frustrating, but there is nothing sinister in this disagreement, it just means that scientists are discovering and assembling different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and are telling people, as they go, what they are finding.

Jigsaws are welcome distractions at the moment, but with huge 9,000- piece puzzles we can often put pieces together that don’t fit and try to jam them into position so we can proceed. We get stuck and it takes another person to come along with fresh eyes or a different part of the puzzle they’ve been working on to move things along.

Scientists and doctors are in the middle of solving one of science’s biggest puzzles and they are working fast. They’ll get things wrong, they’ll correct themselves.

It will be a long while before the definitive textbook on Covid-19 is written and the full picture is complete.

To get more data, or pieces of the jigsaw, scientists need to conduct clinical trials. The bedrock of medical science is systematic and controlled tests designed to answer specific questions. Clinical trials want to know is this new drug, vaccine, intervention, medical device or procedure safe? And is it effective?

Clinical trials require participants. Many of us have taken part in trials during medical treatment. Perhaps you had cancer treatment and took part in a trial to try a new drug. Or chances are, if you’ve had a baby in Cork in the last ten years, you, or your baby, enrolled in a clinical trial because the world class research facility, INFANT, sits on the top floor of CUMH.

Covid-19 has sparked many clinical trials. There are approximately 35 research groups in France, the UK, U.S, Australia, Canada and China, exploring seven different approaches to making a vaccine.

The World Health Oorganisation has launched a global mega trial called SOLIDARITY to test four promising drug combinations.

Malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, an experimental anti-viral drug remdesivir originally designed to treat Ebola, a combination of two HIV drugs, lopinavir and ritonavir, and that same combination plus interferon-beta, which disrupts viruses, are all being trialled to see if they are safe and effective at treating Covid-19.

There are also trials looking at transferring antibodies from the blood of Covid-19 survivors to Covid- 19 patients and in Ireland three large national trials are underway or under consideration.

Cork University Hospital and Cork patients will play a part in the REMAP CAP trial to test intensive care interventions in critically ill patients.

Irish findings will feed into global findings from 13 other countries and important results will be shared quickly to help doctors make better decisions.

Ireland is also likely to participate in the WHO SOLIDARITY trial and a trial by the University of Oxford is under review.

So, even though it may be hard to keep up with the Covid-19 news cycle and the breadth of discoveries being announced, I take great comfort in the speed that they are coming. Science is on it.

Medical history and scientific progress is built on painstaking work by doctors and scientists. The pieces are being put together, the jigsaw will be solved.

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