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Countless people across the country are desperate to get their hands on the coronavirus vaccine. But the same could be said for another icy treat with some surprising similarities: Dippin’ Dots.

Invented by a microbiologist in 1988, Dippin’ Dots’ self-proclaimed “Ice Cream of the Future” maintains its characteristic beaded form only if stored at -49 degrees Fahrenheit. Slipping even a few degrees in the wrong direction can jeopardize the quality of a batch.

Shipping a coronavirus vaccine is a similarly delicate dance.

The COVID vaccine currently being shipped around the country—manufactured by Pfizer and BioNTech and granted an emergency use authorization on Friday—needs to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit, or else important components can degrade. Another vaccine, made by Moderna in partnership with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and expected to get its authorization this week, requires storage and shipping at -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Keeping millions of doses that chilly is no easy task, and necessitates what manufacturers call a “cold chain”: an infrastructure that standardizes temperature throughout every step of shipping and delivery. Pfizer already has one so-called freezer farm in Kalamazoo and anticipates scaling up with a second in Wisconsin by the end of the year, but such facilities represent just one link in the long chain.

Distributing a coronavirus vaccine is going to be tricky—and it’s also going to be a lot like shipping a container of Dippin’ Dots ice cream. Here’s how the ice cream makers do it, and what vaccine distributors can learn from their chill process.

From dot (and dose) to doorstep

Standard freezers are set to bottom out at 0 degrees Fahrenheit, which is significantly warmer than the temperature Dippin’ Dots have to be stored, according to Dippin’ Dots Chief Development Officer Stan Jones. Still, the company manages to ship their product on a massive scale—while 2023 sales have been down about 50% due to the shuttering of theme parks and stadiums, a typical year sees around 100 million servings sprinkled across the globe.

Pfizer is also using special packaging: it’s shipping doses in “pizza trays,” each loaded with 195 vials of frozen vaccine. This design choice limits where the vaccine will get sent, says Julie Swann, a health systems expert at North Carolina State University. A minimum purchase order is about 1,000 doses, so given that the aim is to vaccinate as much of the population as possible, it won’t make sense to send batches to rural areas with small numbers of people.

“They probably designed it with the idea that someone would take out an entire tray at a time, and for a mass vaccination clinic, that’s great,” Swann says. “It just is harder when we’re trying to vaccinate priority populations and they are spread out.”

It’s possible that, in time, Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies will adapt their packaging and shipping techniques to accommodate smaller orders. There’s precedent for another way of transporting a vaccine at an ultra-low temperature without much of an existing infrastructure. To ship the Ebola vaccine, the Bill Gates-funded Global Good developed the ArkTek, a portable thermos that could keep up to 200 vials of vaccine at -112 degrees Fahrenheit.

But for now, those pizza trays are pretty important. Not only do these storage vessels keep their cargo insulated from the elements, they also protect the dots (and drugs) from the stuff keeping them cold.

Jones says the brunt of Dippin’ Dots’ domestic business relies on dry ice, and both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines will also use it. Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide, and it’s quite different from the stuff you plop into your soda. Manufacturers create it by subjecting gas with a high concentration of CO2 to intense pressure, then cooling it so it takes liquid form. Some of the liquid re-vaporizes once the pressure lets up, which causes the rest to solidify.

Dippin’ Dots packs dry ice around and on top of its disposable containers, and can go through 14 semi-trailer trucks full of the stuff a week in their typical summer peak. Because dry ice is a frosty -109 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s perfect for keeping an insulated chamber (and whatever sits inside it) cold for a few hours. But using it comes with a few complications that vaccine companies will have to consider.

For starters, dry ice is dangerous. It’s cold enough to cause burns and frostbite when touched barehanded. Additionally, it sublimates quickly into carbon dioxide gas as it warms up. Because carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, it can displace the breathable air around you and cause you to suffocate. Jones says Dippin’ Dots workers need special training to safely handle dry ice in enclosed spaces such as the back of a truck, and anyone using it to ship pharmaceuticals will have to follow similar protocols.

A further complication for vaccine distributors to keep in mind is supply. Much of the CO2 gas used for dry ice is itself a byproduct of ethanol and fertilizer. When Americans cut back on driving in the spring, the demand for ethanol decreased; however, it’s now rebounded, so there’s no shortage of raw gas. But that carbon dioxide doesn’t pressurize itself, and there are only a handful of major dry ice producers in the country, according to Jones. Already, some companies have reported bottlenecks and regional shortages. Pfizer has purchased equipment to manufacture its own dry ice, but regional health care systems will also need to source and stock it.

And having a reliable cold chain means having enough dry ice for a rainy day. Once a shipment leaves Dippin’ Dots’ distribution center in Lancaster, California, the company monitors weather and other conditions that can cause delays in transit. In instances where it looks like a shipment’s stock of dry ice will run out before it reaches its destination, Jones says, a third-party company has to intercept and add more. Wastage is an inevitable part of the equation. Jones declined to give specific numbers, but says a small percentage of Dippin’ Dots’ shipments are lost to transit delays.

Vaccines can spoil, too. While Swann says this should not be a sizable issue in the early weeks of distribution, we may start to see doses go bad if officials overestimate demand in a particular region. Pfizer says its vaccine can be stored for up to 30 days inside those pizza tray containers, but that assumes a new batch of dry ice every five days.

Cold chains can’t end with delivery; a vaccine must then be stored on-site in a hospital or a pharmacy until it’s administered. Hospitals and other distribution points will have to decide whether to rely on a constant supply of dry ice or hard-to-get, colder-than-cold freezers.

Since 2012, Dippin’ Dots has sold the ultra-low freezers it uses for storage before shipping to various industries. Vaccine distributors and point-of-care locations, like pharmacies and hospitals, have even reached out to the company about renting equipment, since two of its freezer models would be cold enough for the Pfizer vaccine.

“Several people have been contacting us to purchase these ultra-low temperature freezers, but most of them want to do something on a lease basis, very short-term, because once the pandemic is over and vaccine distribution kind of falls off, they don’t want to have to keep those ultra-low temp freezers,” Jones says. “The problem with that is, those freezers are special duty, and once you put vaccines in them, you really don’t want to go back to putting food products in them.”

Very few medical providers will have ultra-cold freezers on hand to store the Pfizer vaccine, Swann says. Instead, states are scrambling to buy them, and at least half a dozen predict they will face challenges due to limited supply.

Payment is yet another similarity between the operations of a cold chain for Dippin’ Dots and for a vaccine. Consumers pay for Dippin’ Dots’ cold chain in the label price of their ice cream, and even though coronavirus vaccines themselves will be free to Americans, state governments will have to foot the bill for their distribution. Those costs will have to be recouped by removing funding from other programs, Swann says, so they’ll ultimately come out of residents’ pockets.

“The people are going to end up paying for the logistics of the vaccine,” she says. A shot in the arm might not be as immediately satisfying as a spoonful of futuristic ice cream, but the pay-off of a COVID vaccine will be well worth the cost—and the wait.

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What Penguins Can Teach Us About Flu Pandemics

Despite our numerous differences, humans worldwide seem to have a common and interminable curiosity and affection towards penguins. These cute creatures have been a staple in any nature program, have been the focus of award-winning documentaries, and even been the stars of many a commercial from credit cards, to hotel chains. Our attraction to them has been studied and found to lie in their apparent juvenile nature – termed neoteny – and their apparent likeness, at least in social activities – to our own human nature.

But last week, an international group of researchers reported on the discovery of a novel infection in penguins. This finding, however, may suggest that these loveable creatures could be harbingers of another pandemic in the future. The virus was influenza – avian influenza – and for anyone who has read the news over the last decade and a half, this could bring shivers to even the most resolute spine.

Avian influenza has been a pain for public health officials for nearly a century. The 1918 pandemic was caused by an avian variant of the regularly circulating H1N1 virus. In 1997, a never-before seen strain, H5N1 appeared in Hong Kong, infecting 18 people and killing six of them. The virus has since led to outbreaks around different parts of the world, leading to 650 cases and 386 deaths. In addition, a handful of other avian flu strains have made their way into humans including H7N9, H9N2, H10N8, H6N1 and just in the last week, H5N6.

Now, thanks to the penguin research, there is another strain of interest: H11N2. The team took swabs from the trachea or the rectum of Adélie Penguins and then attempted to identify the presence of any influenza strains. Previous research in King Penguins revealed no presence of any influenza so the samples were expected to be negative. Yet, in some 2% of the birds tested, the virus was found. With further genetic testing, the strain was elucidated although this offered more concerns.

The first worry was the dissimilarity of this particular strain to others known to be circulating the globe. Comparisons suggested there were links to strains isolated in other parts of the world, including North American horse flu, but the overall sequence was unique to these penguins. The authors described this phenomenon as an “evolutionary sink” in which a new virus is established due to rare connections with other flu viruses. In the context of penguins, their limited interaction with other avian species suggests they may have come into contact with H11N2 accidentally and spread it amongst the population until it became transmissible.

The second issue dealt with the likelihood this virus could escape the penguin population and enter the human one, through interaction with researchers or more likely, tourists. To ensure calm, the researchers attempted to infect an animal model – ferrets – with the virus to see if any infection arose and whether it was transmissible. The same method was used with the H5N1 virus to identify any possible means by which it could become readily spread between humans. However, the H11N2 strain didn’t cause infection. There virus could not cause an infection and there was no antibody response to it.

To ensure there was no risk to humans, the team conducted one final experiment involving a specific route of influenzavirus infection. The virus was introduced to a cell line known for growing influenza and kept at the usual temperature of the human upper respiratory tract: 33◦C. Again, the virus simply could not cause infection as it was adapted for the penguin body temperature, which can be several degrees higher than humans.

The work of the team confirms penguins pose no threat to humans from this new flu strain. As for what the discovery of H11N2 means to overall public health, the impact of the virus on the avian population based on its lineage and ancestry may offer valuable information. Most importantly, researchers may have the opportunity to discover how a novel strain progresses from killer epidemic to a feared pandemic and eventually, a cautioned endemic variant. If we can learn that from our flightless friends, they would certainly deserve our love.

What Cannibals Could Teach Us About Evolution

In the past few decades, scientists studying the eating habits of Earth’s creatures have noticed something strange: the babies of several species, from tiger sand sharks to fruit flies, are eating each other.


Thing is, they aren’t freaks of nature. And in fact, the mechanisms behind animal cannibalism are helping scientists ask–and answer–some important evolutionary questions. These three recent studies provide a glimpse into this gruesome diet and what it means for evolution.

Sand tiger sharks have been known to have cannibalistic embryos since the 1980s, when detailed autopsies revealed embryos in the stomachs of other shark embryos. But a new study published in Biological Letters could give some clues as to why.

A shark embryo

Budgett’s frogs–named for the researcher who discovered them–are pretty horrifying amphibians. Be wary not to scare one, because it can puff up, arch its back and scream “like a cat in pain,” according to the American Museum of Natural History. What’s more, if you try to pick one up, it’ll bite and it can draw blood. In its younger tadpole form, it is no less terrible: the tadpoles, unlike the many algae-feeders, are aggressive and cannibalistic. They will eat their siblings, and therefore their insides are shorter and more complex in order to process protein at such a young age. Scientists at North Carolina State University are now using this phenomenon to try to figure out if the different size and shape of intestines have an effect on digestive function.

Researcher exposed the Budgett’s tadpole embryos and African clawed frog embryos (both share a common ancestor though differ in diets) to molecules that inactivated a multiple genes, causing the Budgett to develop guts like the African clawed, and vice versa. The next step: finding out if the different guts affect feeding habits, or if the Budgett’s tadpoles still eat one another if their guts aren’t developed to digest protein as well. This research could also lead to better diagnosis and prevention of intestinal birth defects.

A Budgett’s frog

Maggots are not just creepy crawly creatures, we now know they can also be cannibals. Researchers at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland found that in a crowded lab environment, fruit fly maggots tended to hunt, attack and eat one another. Though they typically feed on fruits and vegetables, these maggots will go after the older larvae that are preparing to pupate. This is a strategic move, since when maggots are ready to pupate, they become sluggish and stop eating. These non-carnivores aren’t very well-equipped to attack and eat other creatures, which could explain why it sets off a chemical cue to signal a swarm, inviting fellow maggots to join in the attack and ensuing feast. Using mouth hooks, they break through the protective cuticle and slurp up the insides. Those who were cannibalistic also developed more teeth on their mouth hooks–though researchers aren’t sure if that makes them better at eating each other.

The reason behind all of this stems from the availability of food. Those who were malnourished in the lab were more likely to have cannibalistic tendencies. But the larvae could live and develop normally if all they ever ate were their fellow maggots: a cannibalistic diet was sufficient, though they develop more slowly and don’t grow to be as large. Check out some videos here. Warning: they are (as you might expect) pretty nasty to watch.

What Hundreds Of Pickled Frog Carcasses Can Tell Us About Their Enormous Eyes

Frogs have big eyes. But as evident as it is to the casual observer, scientists need actual data to state what seems obvious—and that data didn’t previously exist. And contrary to mammals, birds, or fish, we didn’t know much about what shaped their evolution.

That all changed last week. For the first time, a team of researchers from the Natural History Museum in London found that the environment frogs live in heavily influences the size of their eyes. Additionally, the group of biologists from the Natural History Museum in London found that frogs have the biggest eyes of any vertebrate animal in relation to their body size.

“It was exciting looking at frogs in the context of broader vertebrates and realizing that, wow, they actually have enormous eyes, and it really merits further study into what they’re doing with these huge eyes,” says Katie Thomas, a biologist at the museum and lead author of the new study.

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, fills a gap in the scientific understanding of amphibians’ visual systems, says Carola Yovanovich, an Argentinian biologist at São Paolo University in Brazil who wasn’t involved in the study. “This type of study is very necessary, and I am thrilled that it has been done,” she says.

Almost everything we know now about the eye’s anatomy came out from research done in frogs during the mid-twentieth century, Yovanovich explains. They are the perfect species to study vision: their eyes have huge photoreceptor cells, which makes them easier to manipulate and measure. And since frogs don’t self-regulate their temperature, their extracted retinas can continue operating for hours in a freezing lab, since it mimics the frigid body of the amphibian.

“But all this knowledge was built using a couple of species from the US and Europe. You know, they’re the frogs that scientists found in the university’s garden once they stepped out of the lab,” Yovanovich explains. “We know a lot about those few species, but we don’t know anything about the variety, which is immense.”

A Leptopelis modestus, found in Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. Christian Irian – Natural History Museum

In fact, with 7,100 species, frogs are among the most diverse groups of animals on Earth. They exist on four of the five continents–except Antarctica–and can live in ecosystems varying from the deepest and murkiest waters to the highest of treetops.

To capture all of that diversity, Thomas’ team measured eye size in 220 species. To do so, her team dusted off hundreds of pickled frogs in museum collections from three continents searching for answers. “I opened 640 jars of dead pickled frogs and measured their eyes and corneas and bodies,” she says. That included jars at the Natural History Museum in London, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in the US, and the Bombay Natural History Society in India. She stresses that without these well-preserved collections, research of this scope wouldn’t have been feasible.

She got to see the whole spectrum: frogs with “big, bold, amazing, beautiful eyes,” and the ones that “are super weird and have giant bodies and really tiny eyes.” To make sure that the years spent in those jars hadn’t affected the eyes’ size, the team also sampled 67 live frogs from 50 different species spanning 17 families to compare them with the preserved frogs. They didn’t find any difference between the pickled specimens and their living, breathing relatives. Besides eye and body size, the team also recorded information on where the frogs lived, whether they were diurnal or nocturnal, and certain aspects of their reproductive behavior.

The researchers found that species that live in aquatic settings or underground have the smallest eyes in comparison to other frogs. Jeffrey W. Streicher

One question the study left unanswered was about how the time of the day in which the animals are active influences their eyeballs’ size (the group tried, but couldn’t find any pattern). Yovanovich thinks that a lack of detailed information about frogs’ behavior could have influenced the final results. “You can easily spot a rhino or a condor and say ‘ah, look, it’s eating right now, it’s behaving this way.’ But you pass next to a frog, and you don’t even realize it,” she explains. Being small, generally silent creatures, they’re easy to miss. That, and the fact that a lot of information for some species has been gathered at the height of their reproductive frenzy (when they’re easier to locate due to their constant singing), could be altering the model.

In the end, this is just a first step in understanding the diversity of frogs, says Thomas. We still don’t know what specific aspect of their habitats fueled an increase in eye size in most of them. Thomas and her colleagues still want to know which genes influence these differences, how and when night color vision evolved (frogs are the only vertebrates that see colors at night), and how they manage to change their visual system as they develop from tadpoles.

“At this point, all we know is that they have big eyes,” says Thomas. “We don’t know specifically why, and that’s something we’re really excited to keep delving into.”

What Pregnant People Need To Know About Covid

Because of the coronavirus’ novelty to humans, there are many issues that we still haven’t pinned down—like how many different ways the virus can be transmitted and whether its spread will slow when warm weather arrives.

How COVID-19 affects pregnancy is another area where there’s little that scientists know for certain.

“At this time there are more questions than there are answers,” says Ashley Roman, director of the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine at NYU Langone Health. “This a rapidly evolving situation [and] we’re being bombarded with new data on a daily basis.”

We aren’t completely in the dark—there are some initial reports from China on pregnant women who were diagnosed with COVID-19. And scientists can extrapolate a bit from what we know about other viruses, including the related coronaviruses SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

These are some of the questions about the new coronavirus that scientists are racing to answer:

Can a pregnant person pass the infection on to their fetus or newborn?

In early February, health officials became concerned that the new coronavirus could travel this way too. A woman in Wuhan with confirmed COVID-19 gave birth to a baby who tested positive for the virus 36 hours later.

However, shortly afterwards researchers in China reported in the journal Translational Pediatrics that throat swabs from nine newborns born to women infected with COVID-19 had all tested negative for the coronavirus.

Another team in China also published a report on another nine women who contracted COVID-19 and developed pneumonia during the third trimester of pregnancy. Throat swabs from the newborns and samples of the mothers’ breast milk, amniotic fluid, and cord blood all tested negative for the virus.

This very small group of cases suggests that there’s currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread in utero or soon after birth, the researchers wrote in The Lancet. Additionally, there haven’t been any reports of SARS or MERS being transmitted this way. But we won’t know for sure until scientists have tracked a much larger number of pregnant people with COVID-19, including people who caught the disease during earlier stages of pregnancy.

Are pregnant people more vulnerable to COVID-19?

When someone is pregnant, their immune system is suppressed somewhat so their body won’t reject the fetus. Because of this and other changes to their bodies (including hormonal shifts), pregnant people are more susceptible to certain infections, such as urinary tract infections.

Some respiratory infections—including influenza, SARS, and MERS— can also cause pregnant people to become more seriously ill than others who catch the disease. On the other hand, there are also coronaviruses that cause the common cold and have been circulating among people for decades, and they haven’t been reported to cause more severe illness in pregnant people, says Sallie Permar, a professor of pediatrics, microbiology, and immunology at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Based on the very limited information that we have right now, it doesn’t appear that pregnant people are more likely to catch COVID-19 than anyone else or to experience severe symptoms, Permar says.

All of the women that researchers tracked for the report published in The Lancet had developed pneumonia, but none of them became severely ill or died. “The clinical characteristics of COVID-19 pneumonia in pregnant women were similar to those of non-pregnant adult patients with COVID-19 pneumonia,” the researchers wrote.

Can COVID-19 affect a developing fetus?

Some diseases have profound consequences on a pregnancy that range from early labor to congenital abnormalities or miscarriage. So far, there haven’t been any reports of COVID-19 causing people to miscarry, Permar says. It’s not clear yet whether COVID-19 has any impact on early pregnancy.

We do know, however, that SARS and MERS do not appear to increase the risk of congenital abnormalities. “In both of those outbreaks, the primary risks in pregnancy appeared to be the risk of more severe disease in the mother and the risk of preterm labor,” Roman says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are some reports of babies born to mothers infected with COVID-19 facing issues such as premature birth. However, it’s not clear whether these problems were related to the coronavirus.

Will vaccines and drugs to treat COVID-19 be safe for pregnant people?

There is not currently a vaccine or antiviral drug to combat the new coronavirus. Treatment right now is focused on helping the sick person cope with the symptoms of COVID-19. That can mean helping them stay hydrated, giving them medicines to bring their fever down, or giving them oxygen if they are having trouble breathing.

“If a pregnant individual does get diagnosed with COVID-19 and does end up having to seek medical care, the medical care would in general be the same,” Permar says. The main difference is that doctors might also monitor the fetus by tracking its heartbeat over the course of the infection.

Generally, live vaccines—which use a weakened form of the virus—aren’t recommended for pregnant people because of the theoretical risk that the virus could infect the fetus. Live vaccines include the measles, rubella, and chickenpox vaccines.

However, most other vaccines are safe for pregnant people and protect against diseases such as influenza, tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough. These include vaccines that use a killed version of the virus or only include a piece of the virus, which renders it unable to infect human cells and reproduce inside a human.

“What we have come to realize over the last couple decades is how important it is for pregnant women to get vaccines,” Permar says. “Many of the types of vaccines that are being developed for coronavirus should be the type that cannot replicate as a full live virus vaccine.”

This means that when a vaccine for COVID-19 does become available, it’s likely to be safe in pregnant women—but researchers will need to confirm that this is the case.

Similarly, there are certain antiviral drugs that are known to be safe for pregnant people and fetuses. In fact, one of the medications being tested as a treatment for COVID-19—a cocktail of the drugs lopinavir and ritonavir—is often used to treat pregnant people with HIV and prevent the virus from reaching the fetus or newborn.

But in many cases, when a new vaccine or drug is being developed, the clinical trials used to test their safety and effectiveness often don’t include pregnant people or children—despite the fact that these populations are especially vulnerable to many diseases. So when the medicines first hit the market, it isn’t clear how safe they are for these populations, Permar says.

It will be vital for researchers to consider pregnant people early on in their safety evaluations so that they can benefit from any new treatments or vaccines, she says.

What can pregnant people do now?

Any insights we have right now about how the coronavirus affects pregnancy are based on very limited, preliminary data. Scientists will need to monitor many more cases over longer periods of time to figure out how COVID-19 differs from other infections.

Follow the standard steps for preventing COVID-19 transmission. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, especially after coming into contact with other people or objects that people frequently touch, such as elevator buttons. Use alternatives to shaking hands like the elbow bump. Keep your distance—at least 6 feet—from someone who is coughing and seems sick.

Check the CDC website for up-to-date information about the virus, testing, and treatment for COVID-19, and guidelines for breastfeeding if you do become ill.

If you don’t feel well, stay home and isolate yourself from friends and family if at all possible. Be in touch with your OBGYN if you feel sick to determine if you need any additional care or monitoring.

Thirteen Science Questions About Covid

What are the best methods to prevent getting the virus?

The best way to keep yourself from getting COVID-19 is to wash your hands frequently (and adequately) and try not to touch your face. This is because respiratory viruses like COVID-19, the common cold, and the flu are primarily transmitted from droplets of spit or mucus, which are easy to transfer from person to person via handshakes and food preparation if people aren’t washing their hands frequently. When you touch your face, you expose your eyes, nose, and mouth to these bits of virus. So, by limiting how much you touch surfaces in public areas (like subway poles) and washing your hands well and often, you can drastically reduce your risk of getting the virus. Hand sanitizer is a good substitute in a pinch, but not a replacement for washing your hands.

You should also keep your distance from people who are actively coughing and sneezing.

Should we be scared?

It’s understandable to feel frightened by news of a novel virus, but the risk to individuals in the United States is still very low. Most people who get COVID-19 have only mild cold or flu-like symptoms. The important thing is to do what you can to practice good hygiene, which will minimize your risk of getting COVID-19, and keep you from spreading it to others if you do contract it. You should keep yourself informed using trusted news sources (like PopSci!) and stay home if you’re sick. For now, that’s all you should be doing!

Which is better for cleaning hands? Soap and warm water or alcohol?

Most people don’t wash their hands properly. Here are instructions on how to do it right. A summary: Use soap and warm water (the temperature doesn’t matter, just use what’s comfortable) and lather the soap for 20-30 seconds before rinsing.

Hand sanitizer is not as good as a thorough hand-washing session, but it’s better than nothing if you can’t get to a sink and soap. Make sure you’re using a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol. Check the label of the product you’re using to see how much you should dispense, then squirt that amount onto the palm of one hand and rub your hands together. It’s important to rub the sanitizer all over your hands and fingers, and to continue doing so until your hands are dry—don’t just wipe the sanitizer off on a towel or your clothes.

Without media do you believe the whole COVID-19 issue would be present? With so many pandemics in the world, should COVID-19 be taken serious in everyday life even though you are nowhere near the areas that are in effect?

Pandemics aren’t actually all that common—and thank goodness for that! Pandemic isn’t a term with a strict definition, but an epidemic is when we see a surge of case numbers above what is considered normal for any given disease, and a pandemic is generally what we call an epidemic that has spread significantly across multiple continents. Epidemics don’t happen every day, and pandemics are even less common. Public health officials consider AIDS to be an ongoing pandemic, but most disease outbreaks do not reach that scale.

To answer the second part of your question, the best way to keep COVID-19 from affecting your area is to practice good hygiene before it becomes a problem. In the Pacific Northwest, health officials are seeing cases that make them suspect the disease has been circulating in local communities for weeks. This is not surprising, given how mild COVID-19 symptoms are for most people, how bad most of us are at washing our hands and not touching our faces, and how difficult it is to take time off work and isolate ourselves for what seems to be a minor cold. COVID-19 was able to spread in that area because people went about their everyday business while coughing and sneezing. That’s not their fault, but we can learn from what happened there and try to do better. (Seriously, I’m writing this from my couch because I have a cough).

If I was to boost my immune system would it help fight the virus?

The idea of being able to do certain activities or eat something specific to boost your immune system such that you can become an illness-fighting ninja sounds incredibly enticing. But unfortunately, it’s not exactly how the immune system works. Your body builds up immunity by encountering a pathogen and learning to recognize it and fight against it, so there’s nothing you can do before it encounters the virus to get it ready.

On the other hand, you can do some things to make sure your body is in its best fighting shape when it has that first encounter with a new virus.

The best thing you can do to help your body fight off disease is to get plenty of sleep. You should really aim for eight hours or more! Eating a healthy, balanced diet is also a great way to stay healthy. Doing these things won’t protect you from every potential health threat, but eating a poor diet and depriving yourself of sleep will definitely leave you more vulnerable.

You should also get your flu shot, if you haven’t already done so. It won’t protect you from COVID-19, but it will lower your chances of getting influenza—which can be just as dangerous!

How long do you think the virus will be a problem?

It’s too soon to tell how long COVID-19 will remain significantly active. Some public health experts think it will stick around as a new virus that picks up every season, the same way the flu does. Influenza and the common cold are both types of coronaviruses, so COVID-19 may follow some of the same patterns. However, if COVID-19 does stick around as a persistent threat, it’s likely that we’ll have a vaccine developed by this time next year, and we’ll know to keep an eye out for it and try to minimize this spread. It’s worrisome to imagine such a mysterious virus persisting for months or years, but the upside is that COVID-19 is mostly a problem because of how little we know about it. The longer it stays around, the better our tools for tracking and fighting it will get. That being said, we’ve been dealing with influenza for all of modern history, and it still kills tens of thousands of people in the United States every year. Adding another potentially dangerous respiratory virus to our annual list of concerns will definitely strain the healthcare system, even if it won’t produce dramatic outbreaks like this one annually.

Are they going to shut down the schools?

While individual communities with high case rates have shut down some schools and public gatherings, there is no reason to do this before COVID-19 is obviously circulating in any given area. However, schools and businesses should be as flexible as they can be about people taking sick days and working remotely to prevent the spread of disease.

If a vaccine is developed, could the virus somehow adapt to the treatment?

Many viruses originate in non-human animal hosts. We call these zoonotic diseases. The fact that they jump from animal to human hosts means they’re more likely to catch us by surprise. But they’re not all as scary as COVID-19: The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 60 percent of the infectious diseases that affect humans originated in another animal. Microbes mutate all the time, because of how quickly they reproduce—the reason we need new flu vaccines every year is that influenza mutates into new strains so rapidly—but there is no reason to think COVID-19 will be particularly resistant to vaccination or treatment.

What makes COVID-19 different from other pandemics? (Flu, etc?)

As of this week, the World Health Organization has officially given COVID-19 pandemic status and the disease continues to pose unique challenges compared to other viruses. It appears to be more contagious than the average seasonal flu, though not nearly as contagious as some other viruses like measles. It also presents in incredibly mild symptoms for most people who are infected, which means many people with COVID-19 have been going about their usual routines and exposing others to the disease. But like the flu, COVID-19 can cause serious or even fatal pneumonia in some cases—which becomes much more likely in people who are elderly or sick with underlying health problems. Another difference between COVID-19 and your typical seasonal flu is that a higher rate of infected patients seem to experience these dangerous symptoms: While the fatality rate of influenza is less than 1 percent, estimates for COVID-19 have gone as high as around 3 percent. However, it’s difficult to know how reliable those estimates are. Because so many cases of COVID-19 are easy to ignore, it’s possible that infection rates are much higher than we’ve been able to calculate, in which case the percentage of patients who have died would be much lower.

The flu kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, so adding another virus with similar fatality rates—let alone much higher ones—to our seasonal illness rotation could put serious strain on our healthcare system. However, because COVID-19 is new, we’ve had no chance to develop immunity to it (or to engineer our immunity by crafting a vaccine). If it sticks around for months or years, it will become less deadly as we get better at diagnosing and treating it, and as our immune systems start to recognize it.

Where are scientists currently with the vaccine or medicine?

Several pharmaceutical companies and research institutions around the globe are working to find potential treatments or vaccines for COVID-19. A U.S. biotech firm says its vaccine is ready for preliminary testing, but the process of approving it could take as long as a year. It could easily take months to get a formula that works well enough to test on humans, let alone something that can be broadly deployed.

Was the coronavirus ever seen in humans prior to recent cases?

Coronaviruses have existed in humans for a long time, but this particular coronavirus is new.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that often cause mild respiratory symptoms (the common cold is one of them), but some can cause serious illness. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which jumped from bats to humans in China’s Guangdong Province in 2002, infected more than 8,000 people worldwide and killed at least 774.

COVID-19 wasn’t detected in humans until December 2023, when it started showing up in patients in Hubei Province, China. The outbreak may have originated due to close contact between humans and wild animals at a market in Wuhan, but the exact time and location of the initial jump from animal to human isn’t yet known.

With the process of a universal vaccine in the making, could we possibly ever stop a pandemic or another virus from happening?

No one is at all close to developing a vaccine that kills all viruses. Vaccines work by introducing certain molecules from a virus or strain of bacteria into your body; this gives your immune system the chance to learn to fight the disease before you actually encounter it. Obviously it’s a tricky business to create a cocktail that looks enough like a dangerous virus to help your body out without actually hurting you in the way the virus would, which is why it takes months to study and approve a new vaccine even under the absolute fastest and well-funded timeline.

Because a vaccine works by mimicking the virus or bacterium it protects against, there’s no way to create a “universal” vaccine (at least not with the understanding of biology and technology that we have today). Even the hunt for a universal flu vaccine is going to require several more years of effort, if we can manage it at all. Right now, scientists have to attack a few select strains of the flu with each year’s vaccine, based on research about which strains will be most dangerous. If we could create a universal flu vaccine, we might be able to get one flu shot and be done with it. That would be a huge deal in terms of lowering humans’ overall risk of flu transmission, but it wouldn’t have any effect on the risk of other pandemics.

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