Dr Leong Hoe Nam is an infectious disease specialist practising at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, Singapore. He had first-hand experience managing infectious diseases such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus and the Influenza A (H1N1) virus. Here’s what he says about the novel coronavirus in his Facebook Live interview with ONE FM 91.3.
What is the COVID-19 novel coronavirus?
The COVID-19, also known as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, is a coronavirus like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and SARS coronaviruses. However, it is distinct from SARS – this means that even if you have been exposed to SARS previously, you can still get the novel coronavirus.
The novel coronavirus is highly pathogenic (causes illness), virulent (has harmful effects) and spreads very quickly. Originating from Wuhan city, China, infections have now been reported around the world. There is reason to believe that the novel coronavirus may have its origins in bats, before spreading between humans.
What are its symptoms?
Symptoms of the virus include:
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Breathlessness – At about day 5 – 7 of having a fever, patients have reported feeling increasingly breathless.
How is it transmitted?
The virus is not airborne. Virus transmission happens via droplets and contact.
Droplets: A person can get infected through the spit of an infected person landing on them.
Contact: A person can get infected through touching a surface (eg. a door handle or table) with infectious secretions.
In both cases, one can be infected by the virus coming in contact with his eyes, nose or mouth.
It is still uncertain how quickly the coronavirus spreads between humans. The chances of the virus spreading through transient contact with an infected person are low (eg. walking past someone, touching someone briefly and washing hands afterwards). However, prolonged close contact with an infected person may increase the chances of the virus spreading. For instance, being in close proximity with an infected person who is an exuberant speaker for an extended amount of time in an air-conditioned room.
How can we prevent the spread of the coronavirus?
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. If you do not have soap at hand, wash your hands with water. Water itself can kill the virus.
- Avoid touching any part of your face without first washing your hands. Live by Dr Leong’s mantra – ‘your face is sacred’.
- Wipe down surfaces around you with detergent and water if you are concerned about contaminated surfaces.
- Wear a mask if you are feeling unwell or displaying flu symptoms. Ensure you are wearing your mask properly. You can refer to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) at the end of this article for instructions on how to do so.
- Seek treatment if you are feeling unwell. While you can recover from a cold on your own, you are advised to see a doctor immediately if you suspect you have the novel coronavirus. If you are experiencing breathing difficulties, you may have pneumonia, which is a lung infection. In these cases, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible for an accurate diagnosis and timely treatment.
- Avoid crowded places with big groups of people. Given recent cases of local transmission of the virus, it is important to limit contact with large groups of people, and be mindful of who you are coming in contact with.
Is there a cure for the COVID-19 novel coronavirus?
At present, there is no vaccine or cure for the virus. Instead, the best treatment for the virus is supportive care. This means that the virus symptoms are managed by providing good nutrition and hospital care to let the patient recover. This is likely to work for a vast majority of patients. While more information needs to be gathered, Dr Leong surmises that the recovery period for patients can take at least 10 – 14 days.
Scientists are working on developing a cure and vaccine for the virus. While there are ongoing studies on using HIV treatment to treat the virus, these are still undergoing trials and deemed experimental. Similarly, developing vaccines may take some time – around 3 – 3.5 months. Should the vaccine work, it will take considerably more time for it to be prepared as a standardised drug for patients around the world.
Can I be tested to see if I have the COVID-19 novel coronavirus?
A nose swab is done to test for the virus. This test can take 3 – 6 hours to run, and costs between $200 – $300.
While it is possible for asymptomatic individuals to be carrying the virus, you are not advised to take this test if you are asymptomatic. At present, use of this test is restricted, and it is important that this resource is reserved for those who are ill and displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
Here are some other questions about the virus that you may have, as answered by Dr Leong:
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Which mask should I use? Can I use a plain white mask, or the N95 mask?
Dr Leong: You should wear the blue and white surgical masks. The plain white masks are very thin compared to the blue and white surgical masks, which have 3 layers. The first outer layer is for general protection against spills. The second layer acts as a filter, and the inner layer is for your comfort when you wear the mask.
While the N95 mask works as a protection measure as well, I would discourage people from wearing it. This is because wearing the N95 mask can cause a lot of discomfort, and you may end up touching your face a lot as you adjust the mask, which should be avoided.
Q: What is the right way to wear my mask?
Dr Leong: When wearing a mask, the blue side of the mask should be facing the outside, and the white side facing inside. There is no reason to wear it the other way round – doing so may trap things within the folds on the blue side.
Strap the sides over your ears first. Next, pull the top of the mask up to cover your nose, and ensure that the bottom of the mask covers below your chin. Thereafter, pinch the metal piece on your nose bridge to ensure the mask doesn’t slip from your face.
Q: How long can I use my mask for?
Dr Leong: It depends. If your mask is wet, this means its filter component has been breached, and is no longer effective. Throw the mask away.
However, if your mask is relatively clean and dry after use, you can take it off and put it into a sealable bag, to be reused again.
At the end of the day, I would encourage you to discard it once it has been used. When disposing of your mask, make sure to wrap it up with a tissue paper or bag, to ensure that germs on the mask do not spread to other surfaces.
Q: If I feel unwell, how safe is it to visit a clinic during this period?
Dr Leong: If you have to visit a clinic, make sure you wear a mask and wash your hands with soap and water. Avoid touching your face.
Q: Is it safe to go swimming during this period? Can the virus be transmitted through water?
Dr Leong: It is generally safe to go swimming during this period. Water – and the chlorine – within swimming pools will help to kill the virus. What you’ll have to be mindful of are the interactions you have with others outside the swimming pool.
Q: Is it safe for me to attend events and activities, such as my weekly exercise classes?
Dr Leong: It is generally safe for you to go on with your usual activities if they are being held in small groups. As a precaution, you may want to only attend events where the organiser is taking precautionary measures such as temperature-taking, asking for travel declaration and contact numbers (for contact tracing purposes).
Q: With medical science at its peak, why wasn’t a vaccine prepared earlier for a virus like this?
Dr Leong: If you look at the fecal matter of bats, there are thousands of coronavirus. No one knows which strain will go pandemic. Even if vaccines are prepared for all the coronavirus strains, the viruses can mutate easily and turn into a completely new virus, rendering the vaccines useless. It is also nearly impossible to predict how these viruses will mutate.
Watch Dr Leong’s interview with ONE FM 91.3 in full.
Article contributed by Dr Leong Hoe Nam, infectious disease specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital
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Steve, Y. T. Y. (2020, January 31). An Explanation of Pneumonia & the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from https://www.mountelizabeth.com.sg/healthplus/article/pneumonia-and-coronavirus