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How the common cold can boot out Covid-19

March 23, 2021. The BBC's Health and science correspondent, James Gallagher, wrote the following report, published today on BBC News online:

'The virus that causes the common cold can effectively boot the Covid virus out of the body's cells, say researchers. Some viruses are known to compete in order to be the one that causes an infection. And University of Glasgow scientists say it appears cold-causing rhinovirus trumps coronavirus. The benefits might be short-lived but rhinovirus is so widespread, they add, it could still help to suppress Covid.

Think of the cells in your nose, throat and lungs as being like a row of houses. Once a virus gets inside, it can either hold the door open to let in other viruses, or it can nail the door shut and keep its new home to itself.

Influenza is one of the most selfish viruses around, and nearly always infects alone. Others, such as adenoviruses, seem to be more up for a houseshare. There has been much speculation about how the virus that causes Covid, known as Sars-CoV-2, would fit into the mysterious world of "virus-virus interactions".

The challenge for scientists is that a year of social distancing has slowed the spread of all viruses and made it much harder to study. The team at the Centre for Virus Research in Glasgow used a replica of the lining of our airways, made out of the same types of cells, and infected it with Sars-CoV-2 and rhinovirus, which is one of the most widespread infections in people, and a cause of the common cold.

If rhinovirus and Sars-CoV-2 were released at the same time, only rhinovirus is successful. If rhinovirus had a 24-hour head start then Sars-CoV-2 does not get a look in. And even when Sars-CoV-2 had 24-hours to get started, rhinovirus boots it out.

"Sars-CoV-2 never takes off, it is heavily inhibited by rhinovirus," Dr Pablo Murcia told BBC News. He added: "This is absolutely exciting because if you have a high prevalence of rhinovirus, it could stop new Sars-CoV-2 infections."

Similar effects have been seen before. A large rhinovirus outbreak may have delayed the 2009 swine flu pandemic in parts of Europe. Further experiments showed rhinovirus was triggering an immune response inside the infected cells, which blocked the ability of Sars-CoV-2 to make copies of itself. When scientists blocked the immune response, then levels of the Covid virus were the same as if rhinovirus was not there.

'Hard winter' ahead

However, Covid would be able to cause an infection again once the cold had passed and the immune response calmed down. Dr Murcia said: "Vaccination, plus hygiene measures, plus the interactions between viruses could lower the incidence of Sars-CoV-2 heavily, but the maximum effect will come from vaccination."

Prof Lawrence Young, of Warwick Medical School, said human rhinoviruses, the most frequent cause of the common cold, were "highly transmissible". He added that this study suggests "that this common infection could impact the burden of Covid-19 and influence the spread of SarsCoV2, particularly over the autumn and winter months when seasonal colds are more frequent".

Exactly how all this settles down in future winters is still unknown. Coronavirus is likely to still be around, and all the other infections that have been suppressed during the pandemic could bounce back as immunity to them wanes. Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, has already warned of a "hard winter" as a result.

"We could see surges in flu. We could see surges in other respiratory viruses and other respiratory pathogens," she said,

The results have been published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.'

© James Gallagher / BBC


The article above was tweeted and drew a number of responses on Twitter, one of which said, "Just for a minute, I will suspend judgement and believe BBC is reporting the right thing."

Essentially the report is correct - almost - but like many (far too many), misuses the words coronavirus and 'Covid'.

Since the pandemic began I have consistently criticised almost every official body - the government, SAGE, Messrs Whitty and Vallance, the NHS and mainstream media for simply using the word 'coronavirus' to describe the disease that has been so taxing over the past year. Unlike almost every reporter, regardless of their position or status, I took the time to research the subject thoroughly - I did so because I regard it as important. Why?

Firstly I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theories (although I do see and understand why these are so prominent and sincerely believed), neither do I think Covid-19 doesn't exist. It does. I am not an anti-vaxxer either, but qualify that by firmly going along with the view that vaccines are not the silver bullet so enthusiastically promoted by the UK government and as I have written previously. Given the remarks now being made by the very same government that vaccines do not actually stop Covid-19 and face coverings etc will still be needed and so on, I seem to have been proved right.

As far as vaccines are concerned, I am against the idea of compelling people to have them and placing conditions and sanctions on people who do not have them. There is, or should be, no place in truly free and democratic societies for 'health passports' or whatever name one cares to give such things. I am also not keen on vaccines being so quickly developed and used so widely after such short trial periods. I will however, give 'some' credit (again with qualifications and reservations) to the companies that have worked so hard to make them available.

None of this however, excuses the widespread misuse of the words coronavirus and Covid-19. Firstly, and with reference to the article above, there are seven coronaviruses known to infect humans. SARS-CoV-2 is one of them and is the only one that can result in a disease - Covid-19. That is the difference between the two; one is a virus, one is a disease that 'can' result from the virus. Three coronaviruses can also result in the common cold. Although a cold is often the result of rhinoviruses, it is not exclusively so.

Gallagher's first line in his article above says, "... the Covid virus...". As I said, one is a virus, one is a disease. He goes on to say, "Influenza is one of the most selfish viruses around..." No it isn't. Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a family of viruses known as Orthomyxoviridae. Influenza does not come from any coronavirus.

What is most noticeable about all of this is that the symptoms of all these viruses and the illnesses that they can cause (including adenoviruses) are very similar - the runny noses, sore throats, coughing, headaches and so on. That is why it is so important to differentiate between them and - to use the correct terminology.

Simply saying 'Covid' or, even worse, coronavirus, won't do. It is misleading and only increases the confusion for everybody.

The most striking aspect to all of this, and one that has been raised more prominently recently, is that of the human immune system. Again as I have written before, vaccines work by giving the recipient a small dose of what it is to protect against, in this case Covid-19. This is to give our own immune systems a greater chance to recognise the condition and build our natural defences to it.

By and large however, our own bodies are pretty good at doing this, even though a little help now and again doesn't go amiss and let's face it, if we weren't, the human race would have died out eons ago. That is not to say we get it right every time - if we did, we would never fall ill either.

Nevertheless, it is the fundamental flaw with lockdowns. Of course shutting everybody away reduces transmission (of any disease) but viruses, again of all kinds, will still be there so transmissions go up when lockdowns end or are eased. That viruses will still be waiting is also why 'zero-covid' is a deluded fantasy - we haven't managed to 'eliminate' any coronavirus, rhinovirus ever. Or that pesky family with the weird name that cause Flu.

People can get an ordinary cold, which can then lead to something else that might kill. People can get flu which can do the same. Covid-19 is no different in that respect and the fact remains that most people will survive it.

The biggest issue with all of this is that 'one size' does not fit all. It never has and never will. That's why face coverings, lockdowns and vaccines (by themselves) don't work. Yes some will be helped. But until we learn to live with it, Covid-19 isn't going away.

© Kevan James 2021


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