The Daily Dose: Seeing is believing – Unseen outbreaks and binary sunsets

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While a lot of attention has gone to the numerous major outbreaks across Europe, the Middle East is struggling to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Many countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria have imposed stringent border controls, especially against travelers coming from Iran. They have been watching the outbreak unfold in their regional neighbor with increasing wariness and with good reason. As per Al-Jazeera, “Iran state TV says new coronavirus has killed another 129 people, pushing death toll to 853 amid 14,991 confirmed cases. “Our plea is that everyone take this virus seriously and in no way attempt to travel to any province,” health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said in a televised news conference.” Unfortunately, as with other countries trying to stop the coronavirus, it’s most likely too little too late.

Coronavirus-related events are unfolding across the world on an hour-to-hour basis. A quick summary via the New York Times: “Countries closed borders, cities from New York and Los Angeles to Paris and Madrid closed bars and restaurants, schools closed more classrooms and hundreds of millions of people closed their doors on one another as the authorities took ever more drastic steps to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.The consequences of China’s harsh measures to halt the virus — restricting the movement of about 700 million people at one point — became apparent on Monday when the government released economic data showing industrial output falling to its lowest level in decades and unemployment rising at its highest rate ever in February.” They’ve dropped their paywall for coronavirus-related information so their site is is worth a visit once in a while.

One of the big “ifs” swirling around the COVID-19 outbreak is whether the pandemic will disappear or at least slow down once the warmer spring and summer months arrive. Many diseases, including the coronavirus-induced common cold and influenza, are seasonal events that follow clear patterns. Optimists believe SARS-CoV-2 will follow suit. However, the science behind the phenomenon is still poorly understood. As per Science, “Researchers are testing a multitude of theories. Many focus on the relationships between the pathogen, the environment, and human behavior. Influenza, for example, might do better in winter because of factors such as humidity, temperature, people being closer together, or changes in diets and vitamin D levels. Martinez is studying another theory, which Dowell’s paper posited but didn’t test: The human immune system may change with the seasons, becoming more resistant or more susceptible to different infections based on how much light our bodies experience.” At this point, only time will tell. The current spread of the disease in tropical countries like Singapore and the Philippines does not bode well, unfortunately.

One question that is being answered with each passing day is whether much of the COVID-19 pandemica is taking place beneath the surface, among either asymptomatic people or at least those displaying mild symptoms. An article in Nature explores the unseen outbreak. When asked about the phenomenon, one scientist’s response: “‘Yes, unequivocally,’ says Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist and director of the research charity Wellcome, in London. A telltale sign of covert transmission in communities is finding a few confirmed but unrelated cases, with no recent history of international travel. That means these cases are connected through a hidden web of infections.” This is why those images of packed restaurants and bars and crowds in Disneyland are so disturbing. People just don’t get it.

Epidemic modelling plays an important role in shaping public health responses to diseases as well as economic and political. At this point, researchers are still feeling their way around the situation. The wild fluctuations in data, as can be seen in things like the basic reproductive number and case fatality ratio, are making things complicated. As per The Scientist, “Like any other models, the projections of how the outbreak will unfold, how many people will become infected, and how many will die, are only as reliable as the scientific information they rest on. And most modelers’ efforts so far have focused on improving these data, rather than making premature predictions.” The dust may need to settle for the data to be reliable. The question of when is anyone’s guess at this point (though some experts point to late-April/May).

Just in case you had any doubt that there are people willing to take advantage of a global disaster to make a buck, the Next Web reports that criminals have been scrambling to exploit the COVID-19 outbreak. “Attackers design websites related to coronavirus in order to prompt you to download an application to keep you updated on the situation. This application doesn’t need any installation, and shows you a map of how COVID-19 is spreading. However, it is a front for attackers to generate a malicious binary file and install it on your computer.” Be careful where you click. If you want COVID-19 numbers, visit the Johns Hopkins map tracker.

And finally, on a lighter note, an article in ponders the likelihood of Tatooine-like planets actually existing (that is, planets whose horizons feature two suns). “Long a staple of science fiction, the possibility of habitable planets orbiting a pair of stars has been a challenge to solve for astronomers. But a recent analysis has shown that double sunsets may be just as common in our galaxy as the solitary kind that we know on Earth, and this has big implications for our search for life outside the solar system.” In an infinite universe, anything is possible, right?

Happy Monday, people. Let’s be careful out there.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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