11 Big Questions About Beating COVID-19 You Might Be Too Embarrassed to Ask
There’s no such thing as a stupid question.
It’s been around three months since most of the world locked down to protect itself against the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are still lots of questions out there that need an answer.
Like, when will this all end? Is there a drug out there that can help fight the symptoms? Is it dangerous to use public toilets now?
There’s no such thing as a stupid question. We don’t all have as many degrees as Chris Whitty CB FRCP FFPH FMedSci — the UK’s acronym-happy chief medical officer — and we all want answers. But with so much information flowing, it might sometimes feel embarrassing to ask a question it feels like everyone but you knows the answer to.
That’s why we asked our Instagram followers and the dedicated Global Citizens in our All-Access Facebook group for their questions around what we do now to beat COVID-19 — and answered as many as we could with the most trusted sources from around the world.
From ways to prevent yourself catching the virus, to how the world is making moves to eliminate it, here’s the latest on what the science has to say on the questions you asked.
1. Should I wash my shopping with soap and water?
From Alicia Fox on Facebook
Although the virus can reportedly survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard and 72 hours on plastics, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, the risk of infection from virus particles on those surfaces decreases over time.
That’s why the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has advised that shoppers do not need to disinfect their food packaging. Instead, it recommends washing your hands after handling products you suspect have been touched by others.
"There is currently no confirmed case of COVID-19 transmitted through food or food packaging,” said the World Health Organization (WHO).
Did you know COVID-19 can live on cardboard for 24 hours? The lifespan of COVID-19 depends on the surface it’s on. Here are some common surfaces and the lifespan for each. pic.twitter.com/7qJ5xqClyJ— University Health System (@UnivHealthSys) March 23, 2020
2. How much time does this virus stay alive on surfaces?
From @heldervvasconcelos on Instagram
Beyond cardboard and plastics, that same study said that the virus was still detectable in the air after 3 hours, on copper after 4 hours, and after 72 hours on steel.
Here’s how you might catch the virus via surfaces: you’re out in public, you touch a surface that’s been touched by loads of other people before you, and then you touch your face. So avoid “high-touch” surfaces, like supermarket shelves and door handles, as much as possible — and wash your hands regularly.
One expert from the University of Florida added that many household cleaning products wouldn’t do too well against coronavirus anyway. You’re better off just practicing good personal hygiene, he told the New Scientist.Here’s a list from the CDC of products that would do the job.
3. Do washable cloth masks work?
From Rench Zeus Ramos on Facebook
Although the WHO only recommends face masks for people who are either caring for people experiencing symptoms or coughing and sneezing themselves, a number of countries have offered different advice on whether to wear them more frequently.
That’s because there isn’t that much evidence available — and while Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia in the UK analysed 31 published studies on the effectiveness of face masks, he found the evidence to be inconsistent.
“Our view is that there was some evidence of a degree of protection, but it wasn’t great,” Hunter said.
So the simple answer is: washable cloth masks do work a little bit, but you mustfollow the WHO guidelines on how to use them — like how to take them on and off again without touching your face — and, once again, wash your hands before and after.
It’s also much more important that frontline health care workers have access to them. So play nice!
4. Could someone get infected by sitting on a public toilet like from a store?
From @majosous on Instagram
Public toilets are risky business for a few reasons — though not necessarily just from all the squatting.
Although not specific to coronaviruses, researchers at the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University in 2018 found that hand dryers massively multiplied bacteria in the air. It’s not entirely clear yet if this applies to the virus — but it doesn’t hurt to look instead for touchless paper dispensers to dry your hands instead.
Similarly, with all their confined spaces and side-by-side sinks and urinals, public toilets make social distancing difficult. Indeed, some experts in Australia have called for changes in the way public bathrooms are designed in the future to avoid physical contact entirely — for example, with self-cleaning cubicles, sensor-activated taps, and automatic doors at entrance and exits.
For that reason, avoid touching things as much as possible. But most importantly, remember to follow the WHO guidelines when you wash your hands: once you’re done, use a paper towel to turn off the tap.
And when it comes to the toilet itself: although some early research from China suggested that the virus might be able to be transmitted from fecal matter, the CDC has said there’s no evidence that anybody has actually contracted the virus this way, and based off similar viruses like SARS, assume that the risk “low”.
However, you should still beware "aerosolized feces": particles which, according to 2013 research from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, lift into the air from the toilet as you flush. But it’s easy to avoid most of that ickiness. Just close the lid before flushing — that stops about 80% of the particles.
In your own home, take a more attentive approach to sanitizing your surfaces. In general, try to avoid public toilets. Pee at home if you can!
5. Will cold (refrigerator or freezer) kill the virus?
From Marcy Slater on Facebook
To put it simply: we don’t really know. But probably not.
The WHO has clarified that there is no data that suggests the virus can be killed by cold or heat. Although freezing can slow the spread of bacteria, there is zero evidence right now that it stops the transmission of COVID-19. Basically, we need more research.
But if you’re worried about COVID-19 on your food, there’s two things you can do. Although your fridge and freezer might not kill the virus, cooking food thoroughly will — and it’s always good practice to wash your food before eating.
And without wanting to sound like a broken record: wash your hands after handling food too.
6. Is a closed air-conditioned office more prone to contamination even while maintaining social distance?
From @kristeltecla on Instagram
The real question here is: do aerosols — the tiny droplets that come out when we cough or breathe that can carry virus particles — get further spread by air conditioning?
Again, there isn’t enough data to draw complete conclusions one way or another. But although it’s very unlikely that air conditioning moves those droplets over long distances, like across an entire supermarket, it might allow virus particles to carry over shorter distances, surviving for longer than might have happened without it.
For example, one study of a restaurant in China between January and February found that three separate families contracted the virus on one night, reportedly because one asymptomatic, COVID-19 positive diner was sitting in front of an air conditioning unit that could carry larger droplets further than 1 meter.
But although an expert confirmed the validity of this theory to HuffPost, he was quick to emphasise that this “does not, in any way, imply [COVID-19] is spread by air conditioning”. However, the statement that a closed air-conditioned office is more prone to contamination is invariably true if droplets do indeed travel slightly further through the air that way — even though that difference might be tiny.
7. How does testing actually help prevent the virus?
From @mattpetronzio on Instagram
In the absence of a vaccine, comprehensive testing is one of the few ways life might be able to return to any semblance of normality. And as evident in countries like South Korea, aggressive testing can lead to a plummeting death rate: on April 30, South Korea reported zero new infections.
It’s not just about the individual, it’s about the community: if an entire population can access testing, it helps health services adapt to demand and informs government guidelines. If you test widely, you can find the virus before symptoms develop, immediately self-isolate, and prevent it from infecting others.
That’s why Imperial College London — the university that influenced the UK government’s shift in strategy from herd immunity to lockdown in March with its virus modelling — has insisted that all health care workers should be tested weekly, irrespective of symptoms, while the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has suggested trialing a universal testing process.
“We cannot stop this pandemic if we do not know who is infected,” said the WHO’s director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
8. Are all tests the same? What actually happens when you get tested?
From @immicalderwood on Instagram
It’s pretty simple in the UK right now, for example: you get a swab up your nose and in the back of your throat — either with a home testing kit, or via a mobile testing unit, an NHS facility, or a drive-through. These “viral tests” are the most popular globally, but they only tell you if you have the virus at the moment you take the test.
There’s another type of test you might have heard about: the antibody test. It’s a blood test that looks for the proteins used by your immune system to fight off the virus, meaning it can reveal whether you’ve had it in the past. But the CDC says it can take 1-3 weeks after infection to release those antibodies — and on May 27, updated its guidance to reveal that those tests can be wrong up to half of the time.
The key issue is access. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), just 1.3 million tests had been carried out across the entire continent by the middle of May — less than in the UK alone — because richer countries have reportedly been first in the queue.
So although cases on the continent have been relatively low so far, there are fears that many cases are going undetected.
That’s why organizations like the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) are working with the WHO and others to ramp up testing in the world’s poorest countries. But FIND needs investment from world leaders to do the job: $6 billion is needed to produce rapid testing in the next 12 months to save an estimated 9 million lives.
➡️This week our CEO @BoehmeCatharina spoke at @EU_Commission's Coronavirus Global Response pledging event, calling on key stakeholders to support this landmark collaboration & provide the necessary resources for #COVID19 diagnostics & testing. #UnitedAgainstCoronavirus 🇪🇺 https://t.co/NKifIps20S— FIND (Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics) (@FINDdx) May 7, 2020
9. If u were diagnosed as positive, and recovered, will you get it again?
From Jeannette Louw on Facebook
There are yet to be any reinfections reported by the scientific community. Although alarm bells started ringing from South Korea when some recovered patients tested positive for a second time, the WHO clarified that these were examples of “false positives.”
But, honestly, the truth is still murky. Two studies published on May 20 found that monkeys who survived COVID-19 developed immunity from reinfection. But the best answer perhaps comes from examining similar coronaviruses that we have more information on.
“We know from ‘normal’ coronavirus studies done in the past you can infect people after about a year following an initial infection,” Dr. Ben Killingley, an infectious diseases specialist at University College London, told the Guardian.
10. When will vaccines be made and where will the people have it first?
From @rmc10201002 on Instagram
The world is working on developing a vaccine at record speed. A 2013 paper from the University of Rotterdam found that, on average, it takes 10.7 years to develop a vaccine. The fastest it’s ever been done is four years, for mumps in the 1960s.
But the current estimate for a COVID-19 vaccine is that it will take between 12 and 18 months. If that happens, it’ll be a historic feat in human ingenuity.
There are 224 vaccines candidates currently in development. But while progress accelerates across the seven different types of vaccines, former WHO board member Jane Halton has warned of “vaccine nationalism” — fearing that the country that successfully produces a vaccine will insist on serving all its own citizens before thinking about vulnerable people or health workers elsewhere in the world.
“At the moment, we’re all in it together,” Halton told the Guardian. “As soon as there is a vaccine, I fear that we…may not be quite all in this together as we have been.”
However, there are organizations working on plans to distribute the vaccine fairly. The WHO is working on a list of “priority recipients”, while Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has spent the last 20 years building supply chains to distribute and stockpile vaccines to reach the world’s poorest communities, while driving down its price to make them affordable to all.
And the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil organizations that’s funding vaccine development projects across the world, has written in agreements to all its partners that include equitable access provisions. Any successful vaccine on a CEPI-funded project will also be manufactured across multiple countries too, so global distribution is assured.
11. Aside from a vaccine, what is being done to find treatments?
From @juliadeathridge on Instagram
There’s good news and bad news. Let’s get the latter out of the way: the WHO have confirmed that there are currently no licensed drugs out there for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19. But there’s lots to be hopeful about.
A myriad of teams from organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) have founded the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator: a collaborative effort to research, develop, and produce effective treatments for the virus as quickly as possible.
The Accelerator will also work to ensure that as the right medicines are discovered — like antiviral drugs that help people fight off the flu — those treatments are made accessible to all countries equally.
If the vaccine race proves fruitless, the treatment route becomes even more vital. Take the HIV/AIDS crisis, for example. After 40 years, a vaccine is still yet to be found. But it has been brought under control in many parts of the world precisely because testing and treatment has become more widely available.
Likewise for COVID-19, if we can find effective treatments, it’s possible that life can return to normal even without a vaccine.
“The only way to treat a viral infection, such as COVID-19, is with antiviral drugs,” wrote Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Right now, we can only treat the symptoms since there simply aren’t antiviral medications that can treat a range of conditions in the same way that antibiotics do for bacterial infections.”
He added: “We’re optimistic about the progress that will be made with this new approach.”
You can join the movement to help drive forward the development of tests, treatments, and vaccines against COVID-19 — and help ensure that they reach everyone, everywhere, equally — by taking action here to support our Global Goal: Unite for Our Future campaign.