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Ask the Expert: Dr. Robert Baker

Dr. Baker is a virologist with more than 20 years of experience as an expert in high-hazard pathogens. His scientific career began at USAMRIID (US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases). During his tenure there, Dr. Baker completed important research on smallpox (at CDC), Ebola, rabies, EEE, SARS, anthrax, plague, and hantavirus, to name just a few. 

Dr. Baker has worked for three of the leading nonprofit institutions providing research into infectious diseases and is now Asst Vice President and Manager of the Microbiology and Molecular Biology Division at the IIT Research Institute in Chicago, where his work discovering and testing new vaccines and therapeutics continues. His experience with coronaviruses began in 2003 with the emergence of SARS and then MERS-CoV and continues today with his current work on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, along with many other infectious diseases. 

Coronavirus Origins:
Can you explain how this virus started and why we haven’t seen it before?
o Every animal has viruses.  Sometimes these viruses can jump to another species when there is close contact.  In order to figure this coronavirus out, it will take a lot more study.  But the best guess right now is that the virus existed in a bat.  The virus jumped to a pangolin and mutated some to be able to replicate in the pangolin.  From there we think it jumped to humans.  All this jumping around probably happened in the live animal market in Wuhan China.

Who/How are viruses named? It appeared that former viruses were named for the region of the world where the outbreak first appeared.
o How viruses are named has changed.  They were once named for the symptoms they cause (smallpox), from other languages (rabies, which in latin means rage or fury), or from the location they were discovered (Ebola).  Now, it is less acceptable to name viruses from where they are discovered, as that can lead to the stigmatization of people from that area.  This virus is a coronavirus (a member of the viral family Coronaviridae) because of the crown-like shape in the electron microscope.  Because it is closely related to the SARS coronavirus from 2003, this virus is named SARS-CoV-2.  This name is selected by the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).  The name COVID-19 is the disease the virus causes, and was chosen by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Does ecological change affect cause this outbreak or make it more likely?
o Climate change and the destruction of natural habitats causes more and more wild animals to come into unusual contact with each other and with humans.  This increases the chance that a virus will successfully jump species.  If you roll the dice enough, you’ll eventually get snake eyes.

Why are we seeing so many pandemics in the last thirty years?  
o There are several reasons: there are more and more people, which means we encroach on more wild spaces, which increases wild animal contact and the opportunity to jump species.  Climate change accelerates this.  People move about over long distances more and more freely and cheaply.  And we are getting better at recognizing unusual outbreaks.

Is it true that as long as the virus doesn’t enter my nose and throat (and get to my lungs) I’m ok? I can have it on my hands for hours but as long as I wash it off then there’s no problem?
o Yes.  Skin is pretty tough stuff.  If you have it on your hands and don’t touch your face, your risk is much, much lower than if you do touch your eyes, nose or mouth.  This is why washing your hands, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer and not touching your face are huge ways to avoid catching this disease.

Is it true that it isn’t airborne like other flu viruses?
o No.  This virus can be passed inside small droplets (from a cough or sneeze) that can remain in the air for hours.  These droplets are invisible and can carry the virus into you when you inhale them, or when you get them in your eyes.  This is exactly how flu is transmitted as well.

Why is the spread so hard to control?
o This virus is much more contagious than the flu virus.  It was not recognized early enough before it got out.  The symptoms are generally mild in most people, which means they feel well enough to still go out and spread it.  And we think people are contagious before and after symptoms.

My grandson most likely had the virus about ten days ago but has been symptom-free for seven days.  Is he still contagious?
o The short answer is that we don’t know for sure - yet.  But, we think that most people only shed the virus for a week or less after symptoms resolve.

If my grandson had the virus but recovered, is he now immune?  Could he get it again?
o He’s likely immune for a short period of time; maybe 1-3 months.  This is based on what we know of other human coronaviruses.  Almost certainly, having this virus once will not make you immune and you will be able to get it again.

Is it safe to eat food that my neighbors cooked for me?  They left it on the porch and walked away, then I brought it in the house.
o Yes, likely so.  Heat from cooking will kill the virus.  You could wipe down the outer container with alcohol-based hand sanitizer for extra protection.

Is the virus affected by temperature?  Can I freeze the food given to me by a friend to make it virus-free?
o Freezing will not kill the virus.  In fact, the virus is more stable at colder temperatures.  If you re-heat food given to you, you are very likely to kill the virus.

I heard that blood pressure medicine can make me more vulnerable to the virus, is that true?
o There is no evidence at this point that blood pressure medications, or any other medications for that matter, make you more susceptible to the new coronavirus.  Please keep taking your prescribed medications!

If I am walking behind someone 6 feet away is that really safe?  I’m just walking through the same air they walked through.
o The “6 foot distance” guideline is just that - a guideline.  There certainly are circumstances where that is more than enough distance, and others where it may not be enough.  Walking behind someone is one example where it might be good to give yourself some additional distance.

Is there any way to use my sleep apnea CPAP machine as a ventilator if I need it?
o Not really, and certainly not on your own.  A CPAP machine is not designed to provide independent breathing support like a hospital ventilator is.  If you start to feel short of breath, call an ambulance and go to an emergency room immediately.

Is it safe to take ibuprofen if I have aches or a fever?  I heard that it can make Coronavirus worse.
o There is no evidence that ibuprofen causes coronavirus infections to be worse than otherwise.  However, if you have a fever and body aches, it would be best to call your doctor and seek specific advice for you.

Additional Questions:
Why do some people get a severe case while others with similar risk factors come down with a mild case? 
o We don’t really know why some people get sick or not when there are apparently similar risk factors.  It could come down to the dose they were exposed to, non-recognized risk factors, genetics, or luck.  We may never know the answer to those cases.

How long after symptoms subside will a person remain contagious?
o There has not been a definitive study done on how long people are contagious.  We know that people can shed the virus for several days or a week after symptoms abate, but we don’t know if it is enough virus to infect anyone else.  It’s best to assume that people may be contagious for up to a week in high-risk contacts.

Disposable gloves are gone from the grocery shelves, but I found a small supply at the bottom of a box at home. Is it safe to wipe these carefully with disinfectant wipes and re-use them after handling grocery carts, bags, plastic bottles, metal cans, etc from the grocery store, or is that risky?
o Gloves are generally resistant to disinfectants. We prefer not to re-use gloves or any other PPE for that reason. Use your discretion if you choose to reuse but be aware of the risks. 
More importantly, any rubber gloves (or similar materials) will often dry rot over time. So, if you are using older gloves, be sure to check them for holes before you use them and while you are wearing them.