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Coronavirus (Covid-19): The Search For A Vaccine Offers Plenty Of Hope

glass vial labelled coronavirus vaccine in hospital setting
Image Source: Getty Images

I recently wrote an update on the importance of social distancing, which was well received by readers. That made me realise that what people really want is information about the coronavirus because it allows us to understand what is happening, and why it is happening. 

Having the right information can also give us a sense of hope, which certainly appears to be lacking right now (not because there is no hope — there certainly is — but because we are all so focused on the bad news).

So here’s one piece of good news. As of today (25 March 2020), 109,102 people have officially recovered from Covid-19 (an abbreviation of coronavirus disease 2019). That represents 25.8% of all reported cases. 

What’s more, with 281,660 of the current active coronavirus cases considered to be ‘mild’ — or 96% of all active cases — many, many more people will recover (along with many of those who are currently considered ‘critical’ condition). 

Before I continue, I want to make it clear how important it is that we do our part to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and the tragedy of the human toll this disease is having. 

Social distancing and regular handwashing are a must.

The Search For A Vaccine

I read an interesting article by The Economist that helped me to gain a better understanding of the workings of the coronavirus, and how scientists are looking to treat it. That, in turn, gave me a greater sense of hope and confidence, and I believe it will for other readers. 

Please note that I am simplifying The Economist’s description of the process, so I apologise to any virologists who may be reading for any technical errors in my description.

So, at a basic level, coronavirus is a large family (more than 40) of viruses that cause respiratory infections, seven of which can be found in humans (including Covid-19). The first one was discovered in the 1960s and gained wider recognition among humans after the SARS (another coronavirus) outbreak in 2002 and the subsequent MERS outbreak. 

This family of viruses gets its name from the crown-like (‘corona’ is Latin for ‘crown’) proteins (called ‘spikes’) that stick out of the body of the virus particle, or virion. The virion itself is approximately 120 nanometres (billionths of a metre) in diameter, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, which itself is a tiny fraction of the size of the cells it seeks to infect in the human body. 

The spikes themselves fit comfortably inside a protein (ACE2) that is found on the surface of some human cells, particularly those in the respiratory tract.

Once attached, a stump called a ‘fusion peptide’ is exposed from within the spike which lets the virion into the cell. The virion is then able to open up and release its RNA (ribonucleic acid) which are important for determining how the virion expresses itself. Proteins are released and the replication process begins.

Don’t stress if you didn’t understand that previous paragraph. The important thing to understand here, in my mind, is that the Covid-19 virion is composed of many proteins, any one of which could potentially prove to be its weak spot

Indeed, given the tiny structure of the virion, it is presumed that all the proteins it creates once it enters a cell is of vital importance, so interrupting any one of those proteins or processes could be a target for drug makers. 

For instance, if scientists are able to develop a drug to mess with the replication process of the coronavirus, that could completely stop it in its tracks.

This is also why existing drugs could potentially be used in the fight against Covid-19. One that is being looked at currently, for example, is remdesivir which was used against Ebola. 

While these existing drugs mightn’t be a vaccine or a cure, they might at least be able to help reduce the severity of the disease and potentially reduce the hospital stay. That, in turn, could potentially have a drastic impact on the fatality rate of coronavirus given the global shortage in ICU beds and medical professionals.

More good news: According to scientists, the current coronavirus is not mutating significantly (there are only a few minor variations among them, as per The Washington Post). 

That means that it is less likely that the coronavirus will become more dangerous as it spreads. It also means that the vaccine developed for this disease would likely be a single vaccine, rather than a new vaccine every year (like the flu vaccine). 

Hence, it seems there is an end in sight — it’s just a matter of when.

Keeping Our Humanity

My colleague, Andrew Legget, recently posed the question: which seems scarier for stock market investors — the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 or the current Coronavirus Crisis?

While there is the caveat that things seem scarier in the moment than in hindsight, for me, the current situation feels worse. Not necessarily because of the economic situation, but because we have an economic situation combined with a health crisis. Hence, we feel out of control of two very important components in our lives.

In a way, that fear and uncertainty has stripped us of a sense of humanity. 

Not only have we been (necessarily) stripped of a number of luxuries we take for granted (e.g. going to the gym), but we have also, in many ways, turned against one another (e.g. fighting one another in supermarkets for items such as toilet paper or canned goods). 

While this is not the end of the world, the actions of some individuals have made it feel that way.

We are right to keep our distance (see the importance of social distancing, here), but that doesn’t mean we should shun our neighbour. 

When you pass someone while collecting your groceries, for instance, offer them a warm smile, and reach out to friends and family on the phone to share a laugh. You could even have a virtual party on FaceTime!

We’re still human, just sharing that connection from a safe distance, for now.

Regaining that human connection will help to ‘normalise’ things, to a degree, and may take away from that sense of anxiety and panic. That, in turn, will enhance our ability to cope. 

Just take a look at this video showing Cuban doctors and nurses arrive in Milan to help in the fight:

Source: ABC News

Where Does The Market Go From Here?

The S&P/ASX 200 is firmly in the black for the second consecutive day, with the Afterpay Ltd (ASX: APT) share price up 33%, Serko Ltd (ASX: SKO) up 30% and the Qantas Airways Limited (ASX: QAN) share price up 26%. 

The market may continue its rise tomorrow, or it could reverse course again. It’s impossible to tell.

However, it is worth noting that the Volatility Index (VIX), otherwise known as the Fear Index, has retreated back to around 60. 

Given that the VIX represents the market’s expectation of 30-day forward looking volatility, that’s still incredibly high but it is well below 85 — the level at which it sat a week ago. Hence, the expected market volatility is trending lower. 

Perhaps that is, at least in part, due to our ability to regain some sense of normalcy.

Indeed, supermarkets have reported that the high degree of panic-buying has begun to diminish, while there is also now less uncertainty regarding restrictions (i.e. the federal and state governments have begun implementing restrictions, giving us a sense of certainty rather than simply an unknown what-if).

Foolish Bottom Line

Make no mistake, we are not out of the woods yet. Thousands of individuals have lost their incomes, many businesses — large and small — face the prospect of permanent closure, and more people will fall ill before this is over. 

But remember, there is hope — lots of it. There will be opportunities that come from this, which I plan on writing about in the coming days. And, although we are being asked to isolate, we are by no means in this alone. 

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a look at these charts that highlight the importance of social distancing and what we are trying to achieve by doing so.

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Ryan Newman has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia's parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. owns shares of Serko Ltd. The Motley Fool Australia owns shares of AFTERPAY T FPO and Serko. The Motley Fool Australia has recommended Serko Ltd. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.

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