Baylor professors explain threat of coronavirus, detail ways of protecting against the virus

Personnels wearing protective suits wait near an entrance at the Cheung Hong Estate, a public housing estate during evacuation of residents in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. The Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health evacuated some residents from the public housing estate after two cases of novel coronavirus infection to stop the potential risk of further spread of the virus. Associated Press

By Pranay Malempati | Sports Writer

China’s daily death toll from a new virus topped 100 for the first time and pushed the total past 1,000 dead, authorities said Tuesday after leader Xi Jinping visited a health center to rally public morale amid little sign the contagion is abating.

Though more offices and stores in China were reopening after the extended Lunar New Year break, many people appear to be staying home. Public health authorities are closely monitoring whether workers’ returning to cities and businesses resuming worsens the spread of the virus.

Baylor professors gave their thoughts on the virus based on their prior experience and knowledge of the virus.

Dr. Kelli Barr, assistant professor at Baylor and tropical disease biologist, said that the novel coronavirus is actually not any more threatening than other respiratory illnesses currently circulating.

While the fatality rate for the coronavirus is only 2%, less than that of influenza, Barr said there is a right to be concerned.

“The reason why it’s viewed as a threat is because other viruses have had severe fatalities,” Barr said. “Coronavirus can jump from human to animal and is spread by respiratory contact. When you have those factors combined, the virus has more chance to become more pathogenic and cause more severe disease.”

Dr. Alan Schultz, an anthropology assistant professor at Baylor and epidemiologist, said the reason the coronavirus is a threat is because it is unlike any disease our body has fought off before.

“It’s interesting because what exactly sets off the process by which enough changes occur that the immune system can’t fight it off?” Schultz said. “It looks like nothing else. It is, in that sense, brand new. So your immune system doesn’t recognize it. Nothing you’ve seen before necessarily affects it, meaning that everyone is vulnerable.”

Barr said the global community is not very close to developing something to fight the disease because of the type of virus it is.

“Coronavirus is an RNA virus and it has a very high mutation rate,” Barr said. “It is also passed between humans and numerous sorts of animals like bats, cats, dogs, pigs, cows, so it mutates even faster… we probably will [have a vaccine] in the future.”

Both professors said that the fatalities related to the disease are mostly among individuals who have some sort of outside factor. They said this includes elderly people, those already sick or those who smoke.

The statistics, according to Schultz, show that out of every 100 people to be exposed to this coronavirus, only about four individuals get infected. However, Schultz said a big reason this virus spreads quickly is because of the time gap between when someone becomes infectious and when they feel symptoms.

“[Four people out of 100] sounds like a low number, but it’s epidemic…There is a significant asymptomatic period. This means people will get it and they’re infectious, but they’re not otherwise sick or it’s not obvious that they’re sick with this [coronavirus] in particular,” Schultz said. “So they are otherwise likely to continue living their lives because it feels like a very mild cold. But the truth is they’re infectious and then the symptoms ramp up afterwards. Sort of the way the disease progresses might be one of those setups that makes it more difficult to clamp down. People get it, they’ don’t realize it and think ‘I can’t infect people,’ and then they do.”

Schultz said that because we are in a developed and rich area of the world, the coronavirus is unlikely to cause an epidemic here.

Barr said there isn’t much reason to worry, but that it doesn’t hurt to be careful.

“There’s no reason to be upset or paranoid,” Barr said. “We’re at a very low risk. If you’re concerned, don’t go out where there’s a lot of sick people. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. This virus is easily killed with soap and water, so wash your hands with soap and water frequently.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.