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Top 10 Unsolved Mysteries Of The COVID-19 Pandemic

by Himanshu Sharma
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the world in unexpected and unprecedented ways, going well beyond wild animals reclaiming urban spaces and amateur music performances on Instagram. At the time of writing this, close to two million people around the world have tested positive for the virus with over 125,000 deaths,[1] and the projections go well over what we’d call ‘manageable’. The human cost also includes the many millions around the world who’ll suffer in the forthcoming financial recession, which—by some expert estimates—may be our worst one since the Great Depression.[2]

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The virus is also peculiar in that we simply don’t know how it works. It’s one of those things where the real—and responsible—experts tell you that they don’t know for sure, as there are still huge gaps between how we expect the virus to behave, and what we’re witnessing among the patients on the ground.

10 Why Are Young, Fit People Dying, Too?

One of the most concerning parts of the pandemic is the disproportionately high rate of fatalities among the elderly. This allows the virus to spread virtually undetected among younger, less vulnerable parts of the population. You may think that’s a good thing, but it’s not. SARS Cov-2 can lie undetected and spread far and wide, until it reaches the older hosts and wreaks havoc on them. If the symptoms were a bit more severe and detectable in their early stages, the virus would have had a far harder time reaching its older targets.

That doesn’t mean that the younger people are immune, though, as quite a few of them have died from the virus, too. It’s something we don’t yet completely comprehend, as according to our current understanding of the pandemic, relatively fit and younger folks should not be developing the more serious symptoms. It’s a big part of the larger question of how the virus affects different people in so many different ways, and answering it is crucial to preventing future, potentially-deadlier outbreaks.[3]

9 Can We Infect Animals?

Despite the rather long list of things we still don’t know about the Covid-19 pandemic, we do know that it came from animals. There’s still fierce debate around exactly which animal it was—with pangolins, bats and even poultry as potential suspects—though we’re guessing researchers will get to the animals once they’re done with the humans.

What’s baffling scientists, though, is how the mutated, human form of the virus is now transmitting back to animals, something no one had predicted. Among wild animals, a tiger at Bronx Zoo was recently diagnosed with the Covid-19 strain, along with several others starting to show similar symptoms. While it’s hardly the only case of its kind, all of the other cases of human-to-animal transmission involve household pets.

This is the first instance of the SARS Cov-2 strain infecting wild animals, and no one is sure how. Our best guess is that it came from one of the infected zoo workers without any symptoms. If that’s the case, it should have passed on to other animals, too. No other animal—not even the other big cats—have shown any symptoms yet, so it’s possible that it just affects tigers for some reason.[4]

8 We Still Don’t Understand Its Biology

It’s true that the Covid-19 outbreak has disportionately affected the first world, meaning that some of the world’s best healthcare experts are currently hard at work trying to understand how it works. Worryingly, though, that hasn’t meant much, as the SARS Cov-2 strain has proven to be far more difficult to understand than we ever imagined.

At the heart of the problem lies the big question about the fundamental biological structure of the virus. While we do know that it’s shaped like a spiky ball—with the spikes meant to break into living tissue—exactly how that translates into the unrealistically-high rate of its spread remains a mystery, as many other relatively-harmless viruses—including other coronavirus strains—have the capability to do that, too. We simply don’t know what it is about the SARS family of coronaviruses that makes them so deadly to humans, or even—as we’ll come to in a bit—how it learned to affect humans at all.[5]

7 Its Evolution In Humans Is Still Poorly Understood

The biology of the virus may help us better understand its effects, though there’s still the question of exactly how the SARS Cov-2 strain learned to infect humans at all. While we’re no strangers to coronaviruses infecting people, they’ve always needed some time to mutate and learn to infect new hosts. The last SARS strain—also called SARS-classic—needed some time to mutate in the human body before causing any real damage. The current virus, however, seemingly knew how to infect and kill from the get go, as it hasn’t changed in any considerable way since the start of the pandemic.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t mutating, though none of the mutations have been able to gain dominance over the original one. Put it this way; the current SARS Cov-2 strain doesn’t need to change itself to infect more hosts (yet), as it’s already able to do that without much effort.[6]

6 People Are Testing Negative, And Then Positive

While we grapple with tens of thousands of cases showing up around the world every day, doctors are faced with a new unexplained problem. Many patients that were previously found to be negative are now testing positive, calling into question the very methods and tools we’re using to detect it.

While it’s true that the virus can remain dormant for some time before it shows any symptoms, nearly every country is already taking that into account before discharging suspected patients. Guidelines from the now-disgraced and defunded WHO require that all recovered patients should test negative for the virus twice, with an interval of at least 24 hours between the tests. Concerningly some of those recovered patients are now testing positive for the virus, and we have no idea why.[7]

According to some experts, the virus may have the ability to deactivate and reactivate itself inside a human host, though it could also be patients getting re-infected from other sources after being discharged, or something else entirely. We just don’t know. All of those possibilities, though, fly in the face of the popular notion that the recovered patients would develop some kind of an immunity towards the virus—as it works in most other diseases we know of— which would in turn strengthen the collective immunity of the whole population. Moreover, if the virus can just reactivate itself on a whim, what does ’recovered’ even mean?[8]

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5 The Carriers With No Symptoms At All

If you study the various pandemics in history, you’d realize that the secret of the Chinese virus’s success isn’t its high rate of spread or even fatalities. We’ve dealt with far deadlier diseases than this one in the past; it’s nowhere close to the Black Death or the Spanish Flu in its death count or rate of infection. It is, however, different in one way; infected people could go about their lives with mild or even no symptoms at all, helping it reach even more people than any of those diseases ever could. It creates, in effect, a society full of “Typhoid Marys”, or perhaps more fittingly for our time: “Coronavirus Karens”.

What scientists don’t know, though, is how many of these cases are out there. At this point, it’s clear that known infections or popular hotspots can’t be solely responsible for the deluge of cases pouring in by the minute. While there have been many cases wherein patients with mild or no symptoms were tested positive for the virus, those are only the ones we were able to test. People with a runny nose or cough tend to not think of it as a big deal, and according to many doctors and scientists, they may be the primary reason behind the mind-bogglingly rapid spread of the virus.[9]

4 Why Are Children So Good At Fighting It?

It’s no breaking news that the novel coronavirus strain affects everyone differently. The number of fatalities are way higher for the relatively-older people, which is popularly explained by their weakened immunity. That sounds like an intuitive explanation, though not if you consider that the virus is virtually ineffective on children. Compared to adult fatalities, the number of fatalities among children have been – thankfully – almost negligible.[10]

While it’s definitely great news, it’s also inexplicable, as kids these days are hardly known for their high immunity to viruses, or fitness. In fact, children are usually at a disproportionately higher risk of contracting respiratory viral infections, like the common flu. And yet, many more people expected to have better mechanisms to fight off the virus have died from it than kids, and we really have no idea why.[11]

3 How Do Patients Recover?

At this point, we have a fairly good idea about how the novel coronavirus kills its victims, even if many of the conditions leading up to that point are still shrouded in mystery. What we still don’t completely understand, though, is how anyone recovers from it?

Usually for other diseases, patients recover by developing antibodies, which don’t just help them fight off the current illness, but also secure their body against future attacks by the same strain. That immunity may not be permanent, like in the case of the Influenza virus, though the body still retains some signs of having fought off the disease.

That’s not the case for a surprisingly high number of recovered Covid-19 patients, and researchers are struggling to understand why. In one study done in China, most of the recovered had developed antibodies specifically meant for the SARS Cov-2 strain, which is how we’d expect it would work. 30% of the patients, however, had no signs of those or any other related antibodies, and it’s unclear how their bodies recovered at all.[12]

2 The Invisible Line Of Transmission

Even if the number of cases around the world is growing at an alarming rate, we can at least trace most of them to potential sources of the virus. Knowing that a hospital is a hotspot can help us quarantine and isolate the area, contact everyone who may have been in its vicinity during the pandemic, and ensure that it doesn’t contribute towards any more infections.

Worryingly, though, we’re also seeing quite a few baffling cases from around the world without any discernible route of infection. For one, a toddler in Gujarat, India[13] got infected and died despite there being no known cases in that entire district. And one man in California[14] became the first American to contract the virus without coming into contact with any potential host.

1 How Does It Spread?

Most countries around the world are doing their best to stem the rate of infection, including strict measures like legally-enforced lockdowns and social distancing rules. All of that, however, is based on the assumption that everything we know about the virus is correct. As more and more research is showing us, we know very little, and our prevention techniques will have to consistently evolve if we have any chance of fighting this.

The biggest mystery of the Covid-19 pandemic is that we simply have no idea how it spreads, and anyone who says they do is just hazarding a guess. While it was earlier believed that it could only spread via physical touch, new research suggests that the virus could remain afloat in the air for much longer than we previously thought, and doesn’t require carriers like cough droplets to spread. In a possibly-related case, an entire choir was infected with the virus despite keeping their distance from each other at all times. Again, it’s our best guess that they got it from the air, as we’re still not clear on all the ways it could spread.[15]

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fact checked by Jamie Frater
Himanshu Sharma

Himanshu has written for sites like Cracked, Screen Rant, The Gamer and Forbes. He could be found shouting obscenities at strangers on Twitter, or trying his hand at amateur art on Instagram.

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