In the age of the coronavirus, we are all scientists. We are all amateur virologists, wannabe epidemiologists, infectious disease dilettantes. No subject has drawn as much personal interest, or research, or news consumption as this pandemic. It’s like we can’t get enough of it.
If texts, calls or Zoom conferences with my friends and family are any indication, this resurgence of interest in science surely goes way beyond even the most ardent STEM advocates’ wildest hopes. We’re as famished for details about COVID-19 as a castaway is for rescue. Even the most obscure virus trait is tantalizing.
Regular conversations are littered with medical terms. Flatten the curve. Herd immunity. Cytokine storm. Viral load. N95. Our high school science teachers would be so proud! (Wherever you are, alive or dead, here’s a shout out to mine: Brother Francisco, Mr. Hackett, Mr. Adler and all those I’ve forgotten.)
Here’s a sampling from my personal messaging feed about this obsession with the coronavirus: A piece on the new antibody tests (from The Hubby); a story on the New York survey showing 14% of the population has been infected (from my sister); another story on blood clots in COVID patients (from my brother-in-law); cleaners that kill the virus (from a daughter-in-law).
This is no mere dabbling in the complexities of biology. We are way past platitudes and generalities, and are digging deep into the particulars, just like experts. Go Granular or Go Home; that’s the motto of the season.
For example, a few days ago I found myself explaining to a friend the intricacies of our immune system. This is not what the two of us usually talk about, and three months ago I’d have laughed anyone out of the room if they had suggested I’d be babbling about phagocytes and lymphocytes. But there I was, pacing the pool patio to up my step count while describing how B lymphocytes produce antibodies and how T lymphocytes destroy our compromised cells at the same time they’re signaling other leukocytes.
“Think of them as a whole bunch of Paul Reveres,” I told her, and then added with the flair of the irrepressible writer: “With minutemen circling for an ambush.”
I now know all this because I finished a freelance piece on immunity. But even if I hadn’t reported on the subject, I’ve been acquiring, slowly but steadily, a pseudo-expertise of this dang virus. Most of us have. Last night I spoke to my 86-year-old aunt who proceeded to tell me about a TV story she saw on “COVID toes.”
It has been four decades since I last sat in a science class, and more than that since I studied about DNA and RNA, but let me throw this factoid out because I’ve been waiting for just the right opportunity to do so: SARS-Cov-2 is a champion at replicating its RNA while also producing “subgenomic RNAs.” These subgenomic RNAs, scientists believe, are responsible for passing on the virus lineage, making them a potential target for a cure.
Bet you didn’t know that.
The question, of course, is how much of what we read and hear is pure speculation or outright falsehoods? Not to mention shifts in the quickly changing landscape of scientific knowledge. Remember how the Centers for Disease and Prevention Control pooh-poohed the use of masks for protection? Now they’re mandatory in many places. And as I write this, the Food and Drug Administration has warned about the dangers of prescribing hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug repeatedly touted by President Trump.
We live in a time of unprecedented access to information – and misinformation. We can track the spread of COVID-19 in real time, check out charts and bar graphs, and click on interactive displays. We can even watch a Netflix documentary on the coronavirus in the comfort of home, with a bowl of buttered popcorn, as The Hubby and I did.
But after all this reading and reporting and studying the subject, I keep returning to where we all started: Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Stay home. At this point, it’s really that simple.
(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)