COVID-19 Research Essay: Making Sense of It All

On December 31st, 2019, the first reports of a new, pneumonia-like virus originating from Wuhan, China reached were publicized by the Chinese government, paving the way for arguably the largest medical catastrophe since the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. Later identified as SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19, the high transmissibility of the deadly virus and failure to affect necessary mandates have led to its rapid worldwide spread. About three months later, on March 11th, 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak was formally given “pandemic” status by the WHO, the first time since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic to receive this designation.  Now, [insert number] months after the initial reports of the virus, there have been almost [insert number] million worldwide cases and more than [insert number] deaths caused by Covid-19. As this pandemic, which has forced the doors of both schools and business alike to close and has caused an unprecedented stagnation in global economy, continues its inevitable spread even to this day, researchers and experts are racing to create an accessible and effective vaccine in hopes of putting an end to this international disaster as soon as possible. The rest of this paper will chronicle the developments of the Covid-19 pandemic from the first cases in Wuhan to current political and ethnic controversies surrounding the virus.

Covid-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China, with it being isolated from a tight cluster of acute respiratory illnesses and inexplicable cases of pneumonia. At first, doctors and scientists working for the Chinese government and the WHO thought it was the reemergence of a new strain of SARS, which appeared in China in 2002, but it is now believed to be of zoonotic origin, specifically from bats. The first infections in Wuhan were recorded on December 31, and within 2 weeks the first death was recorded of a 61-year-old man who had visited the live animal market that is believed to be the original source of the virus. By January 23, Chinese authorities had imposed a severe lockdown on Wuhan limiting any traffic to and from the city to try to contain the virus to a single region, but by then cases had already been reported in several countries including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States. By January 30 the WHO had declared a public health emergency of international concern, which has only occurred 6 times in the past. During all of these developments, Chinese authorities tried to suppress the spread of information about the new virus in hopes that they could get it under control before the rest of the world found out. This attempt failed as whistleblower doctors informed foreign media outlets of the new virus raging through Wuhan; however, by the time foreign nations found out about the virus, it was too late to stop its spread completely.

After its origin and concentration being mainly in China, Covid-19 began to spread abroad, reaching almost every corner of the globe. The next “hotspot” of the virus was Northern Italy, with the first confirmed cases being reported on January 30, when two Chinese tourists arrived in Rome carrying the virus. Soon, cases in Italy surged with more that 6,500 cases reported daily at its peak. Figure [insert number] below provides a visual for the daily amount of newly reported cases in Italy since March 1. A possible explanation for the high number of infections in Italy compared to other European nations is expanding air travel with China. Out of all European nations, Italy has the highest number of air connections with China, and since signing a memorandum of understanding concerning the Belt and Road initiative with China in January of this year, transportation between the two countries is at an all time high with 164 weekly flights between the two. Additionally, in 2019, the number of visas granted to Chinese tourists increased by 20 percent, and Italy received more than 3 million Chinese travelers. At the end of 2019, Italy became the number one tourist destination in Europe for Chinese tourists. This heavy influx of tourism from a virus-ravaged China in combination with other factors such as poor government control has been the root cause in the development of Italy as a virus “hotspot” during the spring of this year.

Even though the earliest known case of Covid-19 in the US was in a Washington man returning from a visit to Wuhan on January 21, infections did not pick up until early March by which point interpersonal transmission and the first death had already occurred. In early February before the severity of the new virus had come into the national spotlight, a Biotech company called Biogen held an international business conference in Boston that quickly became the epicenter of a major outbreak in Massachusetts. Due to this early spate of infections, Massachusetts’s case numbers would lead the nation for the first months of the pandemic since later studies found that the conference may have led to the infection of up to 20,000 people in the ensuing months. By mid March, major outbreaks had already developed in some European countries like Spain and Italy, so President Trump declared a state of emergency on March 13 and quickly banned the entrance of non-citizens from China and Europe. Starting from late February, the stock market began to plummet as investors realized that the pandemic would initiate an economic recession from unemployment data, which showed a massive spike to 15%. Over the course of a month, the S&P 500 Index, which is often used to judge general market trends as it covers most of the important companies, dropped by 1000 points, nearly a third of its original peak. 

Beginning in early March, cases began to skyrocket in the US, with daily confirmed cases reaching its peak on April 24 with 36,415 confirmed cases reported on that day. Perhaps the hardest hit US state during this initial surge of the virus was New York. On March 7, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo formally declared a state emergency stating, “I have officially done a declaration of emergency which gives us certain powers to help local health departments that are very stressed.” Since Cuomo’s declaration, cases in New York continued to only rise leading to widespread panic and chaos. As reported by The Metro, New York’s staggering amount of cases can be attributed to its large and dense population (18,804,000 total people, approximately 27,000 residents per square mile), reliance on public transportation, and steady influx of tourists. Even with the state’s high number of world-class hospitals, access to some of the best resources in the country, and third most doctors per capita of all American states, the rapid surge in cases proved to be too much for the established healthcare systems to handle, leading to overflowing hospitals and even the deployment of a Navy hospital ship—the USNS Comfort— by President Donald Trump to aid the city’s existing health infrastructure. While the 1,000 bed ship ultimately returned to Virginia after only treating approximately 180 coronavirus patients, it was initially welcomed with open arms by Governor Cuomo. In addition to the massive ramifications of the virus on entire metropolitan areas, other, more local institutions were equally affected, including schools and universities. On March 10, Harvard University became one of the first U.S. colleges to force students to move out and assume a fully remote paradigm. In a letter to students, university president Lawrence Bacow wrote, “Students are asked not to return to campus after Spring Recess and to meet academic requirements remotely until further notice.” With the precedent set, schools all across the country began to shut down, hoping to slow and halt the spread of the virus. 

By late May, US COVID-related deaths had surpassed 100,000 and cumulative cases were nearing 2 million, and the President and many companies were looking for a ray of hope that the pandemic would be over soon so the economy could rebuild. There were many attempts at vaccines and cures which will be detailed later in the paper; however, all of them failed leaving the fastest estimates for getting a vaccine into circulation around late in 2020 or more. With this dire prediction, companies, schools, and event organizers had to develop new ways to keep their proverbial boats afloat. By May, most schools had already been canceled due to local cases of coronavirus, and administrators looked to find ways to teach students such as holding online classes over video chat applications like Zoom, Google hangouts, or Skype. Belmont Hill, in particular, canceled school starting on March 13 and primarily used Zoom for online classes after spring break. Although the teachers and students were all dedicated to having the best learning experience possible during online classes, the quality of learning during the third marking period tended to drop for most students. This effect of worsened learning and knowledge retention plagued public schools with fewer resources and massive student bodies even more, and with no hope on the horizon for reopening in-person classes, these schools would have to seriously overhaul their teaching methods to adapt to the new situation. 

Towards the end of the summer, covid cases began to drop, dipping from well over 60,000 new cases a day down to around 40,000 in late August. This prompted schools to resume in-person learning, whether that was through a hybrid plan like Belmont Hill or full-time. In Massachusetts particularly, novel cases dropped under 400 per day, which, when compared to upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 at summer’s beginning, reasons that schools could come back at regularly scheduled dates. However, such numbers were short-lived. Beginning almost immediately in conjunction with school reopenings around the country, cases started to spike, steadily increasing from late August through mid-October. Novel cases again surpassed the 60,000 a day mark, matching the high previously seen during the mid-summer. Specifically, hotspots in Florida, Texas, California, Wisconsin, and Illinois contributed to many of the new cases, and to a lesser extent states such as Missouri, Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio as well. Massachusetts has enjoyed being one of the states less hard-hit, allowing schools to stay open for some sort of in-person learning. Weekly or even daily testing for students physically attending school such as Belmont Hill has helped to limit the number of novel cases, halting the spread of Coronavirus as well as possible. 

Although hundreds of attempts at a coronavirus vaccine have been made, development takes months, meaning that there might not be one until at least 2021. A host of different stages must be passed in order for a vaccine to be approved, including the exploratory stage, pre-clinical stage, clinical development, regulatory review and approval, manufacturing, and quality control. According to the WHO, over 100 vaccines are currently in various stages of development around the world, but still may not be released until the new year due to quality control, as the speed of development is unprecedented and only a fraction of the usual time needed. Vaccines use a plethora of methods to be successful. Most vaccines use mRNA, which carries instructions for producing the protein needed to induce an immune response. This forces cells to act as if the virus has already come in contact with them, giving some protection. One company that uses this technique is Moderna, which has been one of the frontrunners for a potential vaccine since January. In partnership with National Institutes of Health, Moderna has accrued over $1 billion in support, while its vaccine has reached the final testing trial. Comparable to the mRNA method is another vaccine that carries DNA designed to trigger a similar immune response. Two companies using this method are the Indian-based Zydus Cadila and the Japan-based AnGes, both at testing Phase 2. Other potential vaccines use previous knowledge from the development of the Ebola vaccine, weakened strands from the virus that causes the common cold, or even versions of the coronavirus itself. The similarity lies in the fact that all vaccines are designed to teach the immune system to target the coronavirus so that it can be quelled quickly before it takes over the body and becomes contagious. 

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