SAR-COV-2: the disease may have been with us much earlier than we think

Peer-reviewed research publications from among others UCL’s Genetics Institute, are increasingly supporting the hypothesis that SAR-COV-2 (i.e. Coronavirus) may have been with us since the last quarter of 2019.

According Professor Francios Balloux, director of the institute, genetic evidence supports suspicions that the virus was most likely infecting people in Europe, the USA and elsewhere weeks or even months before the first official cases were reported in January-February 2020.

Dr Yves Cohen, head of resuscitation at the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals has similarly revealed that a man in France was infected with COVID-19 as early as 27 December 2019, nearly a month before authorities there confirmed the first cases.

Professor Balloux further opined that at most, 10 percent of the world’s population (i.e. 790 million people) has been exposed to the virus. As Professor Marc Lipsitch from Harvard University rightly pointed out, the SAR-COV-2 spreads rapidly with “infectants” transmitting it before they even know they are infected. For this reason, he projects that between 40-70 percent of the world’s population could become infected.

The rapid global spread may have been started by travellers who got infected when they went to China, then travelled back home and/or directly to various destinations in Europe, USA, Africa and the rest of the world. Some of these “globe trotters” included Ghana-based business people C-suite executives, academics, policy makers, students, tourists, politicians, traders, diasporians and so forth.

All Ghanaians will recall that during the last quarter of 2019, there was an influx of visitors into the country for the very successful Year of Return project. It is highly possible that this cunning and elusive coronavirus could have made its way into Ghana then, via several asymptomatic carriers.

The swift, bold and decisive move by the President and Government to partially lock down the country as well as immediately commence tracing and testing certainly helped Ghana to avert the unfortunate cataclysmic incidents currently unfolding in the USA, Spain, Brazil, Italy and the UK.

As at May 11, known infections as a percentage of Ghana’s total population remains below 0.015 percent. Of these documented infections, five cases or 0.00002 percent of the total population were deemed serious or critical cases; the 22 COVID-19 unfortunate fatalities as a percentage of the over 4,700 known infections was0.468 percent. This is well below global and African mortality benchmarks of 6.77 percent and 3.55 percentrespectively. These factual data certainly provide further proof that the interventions by Government coupled with citizenry vigilance is working and augurs well for the future.

With more testing and tracing, infection cases both locally and globally will definitely show an upward trajectory for the rest of 2020 and possibly beyond. However, there is increasing evidence that getting infected with SAR-COV-2 (i.e. coronavirus) does not necessarily lead to the full-blown COVID-19 disease. Nor is the disease COVID-19 a death sentence.

It is for this reason that out of the more than 4.1 million infections that have been documented globally, over 30 percent (i.e. 1.44 million people) have already fully recovered. As of May 9, 2020, serious critical cases as a percentage of the recorded global and African infections were 1.12 percent and 0.346 percent respectively and improving. In Ghana the five serious and critical cases as a percentage of locally known infections was 0.106percent.

Ghanaians must respectfully accept that since the coronavirus spread supposedly started during the late 4thquarter of 2019, it is highly possible that there is a relatively high number of asymptomatic carriers already in our society. These nationals have unintentionally infected others.

The new asymptomatic “infectants” who do not know that they are carriers also innocently continue to spread the virus. Hence the need for ongoing vigilance by all. Time will be best judge as to whether these earlier carriers have developed innate or adaptive immune responses to the virus.

To date 0.54 percent of the world’s population have recorded infections. Leading academics and scientists including Dr Fauci of NIAID continue to warn that the true extend of the pandemic is not known due to insufficient testing infrastructure globally. The situation in Ghana is no different. Hence, there is an urgent need to improve public health care supply chains and tracing and testing capabilities in anticipation of an extended show down with this highly contagious, cunning and elusive beast.

WHO estimates the reproductive number (R0) for the SAR-COV-2 – which indicates the transmissibility of the virus – to be between 2 and 2.5. Behaviour patterns are inextricably linked to the R0. If the number is above, one (1) the infectivity rate increases exponentially. If below one (1) the virus dwindles as virtually no infections are occurring. Ghana is yet to determine the country-specific R0 for this dreadful virus. However, it is looking increasingly likely that it is currently nowhere near the WHO estimate and most likely currently below 0.

For the reproductive number to remain below zero (0) there can be NO relaxation on: onoing tracing, testing, isolation, treatment, continuous tracking and monitoring; and strict adherernace to containment measures such as the wearing of the right face protection masks (FPM), improved personal hygiene, washing of hands, restrictions on public gatherings, distancing in communal and public areas, in offices, schools and work areas, boarder controls, etc.

Finally, our beloved Ghana is part of an interconnected world. The country is increasingly becoming the aero logistics, supply chain hub and gateway into the ECOWAS sub-region and has already been drawn into this complex global ‘war’.

All Ghanaians must therefore prepare their minds for a possible prolonged battle by individually and collectively continuing to: (1) act as true citizens by adhering to the strict protocols to protect each other as well as (2) help to especially shield the aged and vulnerable in our society from this incredibly dangerous micro-organism.

Without a doubt, science and engineering will eventually solve this complex COVID-19 conundrum.  However, nobody currently knows how long it will take. As a nation we have done well so far and will emerge stronger to implement our beyond aid agenda.

>>>The writer is an international chartered director and Africa’s first ever appointed Professor Extraordinaire for Industrialisation and Supply Chain Governance.

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