PROVIDENCE — The three W’s — wearing a mask, watching your distance, and washing your hands — remain the most effective means to limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus a year after the pandemic swept through the United States, Dr. Timothy Flanigan told a recent Zoom audience in Rhode Island.
“Things will be a little different from now on, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do those things we’ve always loved, while being a little prudent,” Flanigan said during his March 24 webinar entitled, “A Journey Through Three Pandemics: Covid-19, HIV, and Ebola.”
Flanigan, a Catholic deacon and a professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Brown University, shared his experiences in a special Lenten presentation for donors and friends of St. Patrick Academy in Providence. Flanigan discussed treating patients infected in those pandemics, and presented the facts of how those viruses originated and spread among people.
“All of these viruses exist within the animal kingdom,” said Flanigan, who explained that those viruses transferred from animals such as primates and bats that came into close contact with human beings in developing countries in Africa and China.
“It’s quite clear now that HIV probably entered into humans multiple different times in the 1960s and 1970s through primates,” said Flanigan, who added that in central Africa it’s been common for people to hunt primates.
“Those animals, when hunted and killed are skinned, sold as bushmeat, but that process causes cuts and nicks on the hands, and many opportunities for blood-to-blood exposure to happen,” Flanigan said, noting that the refugee camps of displaced African persons in the 1970s provided an opportunity for the HIV virus to “expand, explode and grow.”
“And then it went from there, and we had the AIDS epidemic,” Flanigan said.
But unlike in the COVID-19 pandemic, when reliable tests could be manufactured within weeks of the novel coronavirus being discovered, Flanigan said it took researchers in the early 1980s about two years “to figure out what the virus was,” and then another year to develop a test.
Advances in molecular biology over the last 40 years enabled the rapid development of quick testing and vaccines for COVID-19. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for coronavirus detects the virus by looking for small amounts of its signature protein.
“Right now the rapid test [for COVID-19] is quite amazing,” Flanigan said.
With Ebola, which causes a severe hemorrhagic fever in humans and primates, Flanigan said the first case was recognized in Africa in 1979. That virus caused the West African Ebola Epidemic from 2014 to 2016, in which 28,000 people were infected and more than 11,000 died.
With Ebola and COVID-19, both viruses are present in bats. Ebola is believed to have been spread when a bat bit and infected an infant in a forest village in Guinea. Flanigan said the novel coronavirus may have spread to humans in Wuhan, China, near a laboratory studying those viruses.
“This spillover phenomenon is common, and it will continue to occur,” said Flanigan, who recommended the book, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,” by David Quammen.
With the novel coronavirus, Flanigan said the science still indicates that it is primarily spread through respiratory droplets expelled through the mucus membranes when someone speaks, sings, coughs or sneezes. Symptoms can develop within five days of exposure, with pneumonia — the most common reason for why COVID-19 patients go to the hospital — beginning the week after.
Other coronaviruses are only spread when someone has an active infection and is feeling ill with symptoms.
“We thought that might have been the case with the COVID epidemic, and it turns out we were wrong,” Flanigan said. “It turns out we can have zero symptoms and spread the virus today, and develop symptoms tomorrow or the next day.”
Flanigan called the development of the various COVID-19 vaccines a “homerun” and a “game-changer” for battling the pandemic.
“It’s obviously been an incredible success, and the best prevention for COVID-19 is vaccination,” said Flanigan, who noted that as of his March 24 presentation, nationwide coronavirus cases had dropped about 80 percent since the last peak around Christmas and New Year’s.
Regarding the variants of COVID-19, Flanigan said that natural immunity — from people previously infected with the virus — and vaccinations have so far proven effective, though he said it is likely that booster shots will be needed at some point.
Flanigan said he believes cases will be down 90 percent at some point, which would allow public health restrictions to further be eased or lifted, which would allow for more commercial activity and enable more people to feel safer in attending Mass on Sundays.
“Things will be done in a stepwise fashion, while watching the rates. When the rates are dropping, we can begin to roll back those precautions,” said Flanigan, who added that his family and Catholic faith have helped sustain him over the challenges of the past year.
Said Flanigan, “We need to help each other out.”