Coronavirus: Your questions answered by the University of Portsmouth's Dr Joy Watts

AS CORONAVIRUS continues to dominate the public dialogue, BYRON MELTON took your questions on Covid-19 and put them to an expert from the University of Portsmouth’s Faculty of Science of Health.

Saturday, 21st March 2020, 4:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 24th March 2020, 8:50 pm

Dr Joy Watts, pictured, is a reader in Environmental Microbiology and associate head (research) at the institution’s School of Biological Sciences.

As of Friday morning there were 3,983 recorded cases of the virus confirmed across the UK, and 177 deaths, with 79 patients having recovered, Dr Watts outlines below some of the science behind it and its spread.

Q: With so many colds and coughs why is it so hard to be tested at the moment? Many are just carrying on as they assume it’s just a cold – Ian Eames, Hayling Island

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Dr Joy Watts, a reader of Environmental Microbiology and associate head (research) at the University of Portsmouth's School of Biological Sciences.

A: Thank you for your question. I think a lot of people are confused about screening.

The WHO press briefing on Monday also mentioned the importance of testing and going forward this will be an essential tool in our battle with the virus.

There are two major types of test that can be used. One is the molecular method based on detecting the presence of the virus on a throat/nasal swab by looking for a specific genetic sequence, using a technique called RT-PCR.

The second type of test is based on the presence of immune system markers in the blood as signs of previous infection, for people who have had the test and had minor/no symptoms.

I think your questions goes some way to answering the question, there are lots of people who currently have typical seasonal coughs and colds.

Therefore, to test everyone displaying symptoms at the moment there would need to be a large increase in testing facilities.

Currently there are eight laboratories in England that can perform accredited testing at the correct safety level.

New kits and techniques are being developed as quickly as possible, but it is important that these capabilities are being ramped up as quickly and safely as possible.

Q: I have a two-month-old baby and I've heard nothing about how vulnerable young children and babies are to this outbreak. What can we do to keep our babies safe from coronavirus, besides washing our hands and being vigilant out in public? – Jodie Payne, Portsmouth

A: I am a microbiologist and not qualified to give advice on individual cases, but here is some advice from the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) that is useful when thinking about keeping children well:

Based on current evidence, children do not appear to be at higher risk for Covid-19 than adults.

While some children and infants have been sick with Covid-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date. Children with confirmed Covid-19 have generally presented with mild symptoms.

Reported symptoms in children include cold-like symptoms, such as fever, runny nose, and cough. Vomiting and diarrhoea have also been reported.

It’s not known yet whether some children may be at higher risk for severe illness, for example, children with underlying medical conditions and special healthcare needs.

You can encourage your child to help stop the spread of Covid-19 by teaching them to do the same things everyone should do to stay healthy:

- Clean hands often using soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer

- Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces daily in household common areas (e.g. tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, handles, desks, toilets, sinks)

- Launder items including washable plush toys as appropriate in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If possible, launder items using the warmest appropriate water setting for the items and dry items completely

Q: I have read it is better to take paracetamol as opposed to ibuprofen if getting some symptoms. Can you please advise? – Caroline Hardy, Southsea

A: It has been reported by the BBC that on Tuesday the UK's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the ‘sensible thing’ at the moment is to avoid ibuprofen if you have coronavirus.

This followed comments made by French authorities warning that people shouldn’t be taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and instead should be relying solely on paracetamol, which is not anti-inflammatory – a suggestion Sir Patrick said ‘may or may not be right’.

It is thought the French guidelines are based on the findings from a paper published on March 10th in The Lancet, looking at the outcomes after treatments for 52 patients in intensive care, so this was a very small observational study and hence the uncertainty.’

Q: Who is most at risk of becoming seriously unwell with the coronavirus? – Multiple readers

A: The NHS advises you may be at a particularly high risk of getting seriously ill with coronavirus if you:- Have had an organ transplant and are taking immunosuppressant medicine- Are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy- Have blood or bone marrow cancer, such as leukaemia- Have a severe chest condition, such as cystic fibrosis or severe asthma- Have another serious health condition

Q: Can we use any soap, or does it have to be anti-bacterial? For example, we have aloe vera soap bars at home. Would they offer the same protection? – Fi Gates, Portsmouth

A: Great question. It is any soap. Soaps are able to completely split open the virus by pulling apart the protein coat that protect them. The reason why we need to wash our hands for twenty seconds is to give this chemical reaction enough time to work.

Q: Can the virus be transmitted by dogs, for example, walking dogs from households that are sick? Or by someone who is sick walking a dog who belongs to an elderly person on lockdown? – Kimberley Barber, Swanmore

A: Another great question. There has been much made on social media about dogs being a potential carrier of the novel coronavirus, however there is no evidence of this.

Dogs, cats and other animals can catch other coronaviruses, but they do not appear to catch the SARS-CoV2 and therefore do not cause COVID-19.

Q: Can the coronavirus be sexually transmitted? – Ken Wu, Portsmouth

A: The risk would be from being in close proximity to the person.

A recent paper in The Lancet found that person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 might be most likely to occur through unprotected, prolonged exposure to an individual with symptomatic COVID-19.

Q: Are you immune once you've had the virus? – Multiple readers

A: Because this is a new virus at the moment this is unclear and a lot of research is ongoing to find the answer.

Generally, once we are infected with a pathogen we build up an immune 'memory' of that pathogen, like measles for example, and if infected again, can then quickly react to the attack and stop the illness from developing.

This is the basis for vaccines, to prime an immune response when you have not actually had that disease.

However there are some pathogens, such as influenza (flu) that we have to create new vaccines for each year, as the viral structure changes and we do not have an accurate 'memory' or antibody to attack the pathogen.

Q: What happens to coronavirus if it lands on food stuffs, and how long could it survive on something like a pepper? – Tom Morton, Swanmore

A: The US Food and Drug Association have produced detailed advice about this issue.

They state: ‘Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of Covid-19’ and exposure via food is not known to be a route of transmission.

However, they do mention that viral particles could land on a food surface and that someone could handle the food and then pass the particles by touching their mouth, nose or eyes.

But they stress this is not the main way the virus spreads and suggest to follow normal standards of food safety, which would include washing your fruit and vegetables as usual.

There is evidence the particles are stable on surfaces and estimates range from 9-24 hours.

Again normal food hygiene of washing any fresh produce would be the best strategy.

Q: Does cooking ‘kill’ the coronavirus? – Multiple readers

A: The SARS-CoV-2 virus is sensitive to heat - and in general cooking would destroy it, but as with the answer above, food is not the standard route of transmission.

If the virus was ingested into your gastrointestinal tract your stomach acids would quickly break it apart.

Please note while we received many questions concerning readers’ individual considerations relating to the coronavirus, Dr Watts is not a GP and is not qualified to give advice on individual medical cases.

To learn more about Dr Watts and her research, go to port.ac.uk/about-us/structure-and-governance/our-people/our-staff/joy-watts