University’s epidemiologist talks coronavirus


Jacob Waring – News Editor

COVID-19, more commonly known as Coronavirus, has impacted the lives of Southern students and the lives of everyone on a global scale.

Not much is known about the novel virus but John Nwangwu, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at Southern and a global health expert at various universities, knows more about the virus than the average person. Nwangwu has the expertise to provide answers about COVID-19.

His expertise comes from being a consultant under the World Health Organization. He has done work in every continent and started with the WHO back in 1982. He has been in Brazil to lend his expertise with the Zika virus, Nipah Virus in India, Ebola in West Africa and is currently working on COVID-19.

Currently, he said his work on Covid-19 is investigating the disease through research on the virus’s method of distribution. This means he scrutinizes the number of cases per country and what kind of people are becoming infected. He also said he is at work determining the cause of COVID-19 and how the virus spreads. He is also coming up with control strategies to stop or lessen the impact of the virus over time.
According to Nwangwu, COVID-19 is unique on its own with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coming close to having similar attributes which he worked on in the Balkans region of Europe. Yet, due to how new the virus is, he said scientists are trying to learn as much as they can.

“It’s unique because it’s like the new kid on the block,” said Nwangwu, “and just like a new child, you don’t know a lot about it. It has its own characteristics and personalities, which [scientists] are grappling to understand because it’s only been around since November/December [of] last year.”

One aspect of the virus that is unknown is whether those who get COVID-19 build a resistance or immunity after recovery. However, Nwangwu said that observations in countries like Italy, China and other countries allows for an accumulation of knowledge and study on this novel virus.

He also said the virus could mutate again and that mutation within viruses are a way of survival for viruses. This is why observing and studying the virus is key to combating it, according to Nwangwu.

Nwangwu explained the importance of the epidemiological curve and said that lowering the curve is critical.

“[The curve] is a presentation of a number of cases of a particular disease over time and if there is an intervention, the cases increase and you see the pattern.” said Nwangwu. “If there is any intervention that is effective, it could bring down the curve or the line down back to endemic level, meaning normal level.”
Nwangwu said he does not think anyone is exempted from being infected with COVID-19. He said he recommends that younger people, or anyone for that matter, follow safe social distancing.
“I think it’s based on that that everybody, including the younger people, are encouraged to stay away from unnecessary crowd and hygienic practices,” said Nwangwu, “because they may also be passing it on to other people.”
The data for the virus this far, according to Nwangwu, paints an image of a virus that is different from the flu or the common cold. The key differences that scientists noticed thus far he said was the fatality rate and the infection rate of COVID-19.

“For example, the fatality rate for common flu is .001 and the fatality rate COVID-19 is 2 percent,” said Nwangwu, “then the rate of infection also is much, much higher in COVID-19 in comparison to common cold and that is why COVID-19 spreads very fast.”

The dire circumstances in Italy and the United States, including increases in cases, deaths and other statistical data, led Nwangwu to say that if the United States does not flatten the curve, then what is happening in Italy could happen in the U.S.

“If we’re taking actions that could bring [down the curve], then we [will not] have to suffer the [same fate as] Italy is suffering now,” said Nwangwu, “But if we didn’t [lower the curve] or if our intervention is not effective, yes, we will suffer.”

The technologically advancements and mankind’s understanding of germ, according to Nwangwu, has allowed our species to deal with illnesses nowadays that caused pandemonium in the past. He said this is why work towards a vaccine against COVID-19 is critical.

He said diseases in the past could kill off everybody in a community or country. He also said at the time, humanity did not know what germs were. Vaccinations and herd immunity, Nwangwu said, is what protects our species today.

“[People in the past] had no protections because at that time there were no shots being given to people to protect them,” said Nwangwu. “Their people had not acquired immunity to some of those diseases. So, what is protecting us today, are the shots.”

Nwangwu recommends that people avoid or steer away from crowds, practice social distancing and  stay away from environments that will expose a person to COVID-19.  He said he understands why students are upset about the university closing and their semesters drastically changing but added that it is for the best because it will help lower the curve.

“I’ve heard people saying it’s extreme,” said Nwangwu, “Maybe. I don’t think so. I think it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”

Not much has been said, according to Nwangwu, about improving or repairing the public health infrastructure of the United Stated and the world at large. Nwangwu said he agrees that it is important to take care of businesses and support various individuals who are currently suffering. Nwangwu’s concern, he said, was that many people are not looking towards the future in terms of prevention.

“I think we are taking our eyes off on the actual real problem,” said Nwangwu. “To avoid experiencing [a pandemic] again in the future and the best way to prepare for that, you know, is to is to improve, prepare [and] fortify our public health infrastructure.”

Photo Credit: Southernct.edu

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