Diagnostics samples being processed

The unknowns of COVID-19

And some simple steps to stay safe

Published 25 March 2020

“Even I still have the impulse to shake hands,” says Klaus Kuhlbusch. It can be difficult to break old habits, even if your work involves researching and studying the deadly season flu, influenza. As the world begins to learn more about the novel coronavirus, the flu is often referenced especially in terms of symptoms and preventative measures.

But there are some similarities, although much regarding COVID-19 is still unknown. As Global Medical Director Infectious Diseases in Global Product Development Medical Affairs at Roche, Klaus discusses how the flu differs from COVID-19, and he offers some simple steps that can be taken to keep the virus at bay.

As the number of COVID-19 infections spread, could you please let us know some strict DOs and DONTs that could help us?
One of the major recommendations made by experts is to avoid touching your face. I find this particularly difficult. As soon as I start to concentrate on something, I do this automatically. I find it easier to implement additional behaviours than stopping things that you do almost unconsciously. Therefore, my focus is on frequent and thorough handwashing.

In addition, handshaking is something that happens almost automatically. Even if I succeed in not offering a handshake, if somebody else reaches out, I still have the impulse to shake hands and have to pull my hand back when it is already halfway out. In the meantime, contacts have become very rare and people are beginning to get used to not reaching out for a handshake.

Absolute DONTs in the current situation are hugs and kisses with people outside one’s own, immediate family. Moreover, an absolute DO would be to have TCs and Hangouts instead of face to face meetings. In our team, we changed an ad board with several experts to a virtual meeting. Even the Roche participants dialled in from home.

How is COVID-19 different from the seasonal flu?
My area of work needs me to work on influenza (flu). I believe that many people do not take even the flu seriously enough. It is different from a common cold. Up to 650,000 people worldwide die each year of the flu. Prevention and treatment options can help to reduce the number of severe cases and deaths, but it is still a serious illness.

There are still many things unknown about COVID-19, including their differences. Currently it appears that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is the cause of the COVID-19 disease, spreads more easily than the seasonal influenza virus. That means that a higher proportion of the population will be infected at a certain point of time.

The true number of infections is unknown as there are cases with no or minimal symptoms that are not diagnosed. Therefore, we do not know the true proportion of patients who require hospitalisation. But currently it seems that there is a higher rate of severe cases and mortality.

Also different from the flu is the fact that currently there is no approved vaccination available to prevent the infection, nor are there any medicines approved to specifically treat infections in humans caused by the virus.

Klaus Kuhlbusch in his home office
Klaus Kuhlbusch is also working from home to maintain social distancing

In many places, hand sanitisers have disappeared from supermarket shelves. What alternate arrangements can people make?
I strongly believe that keeping distance is most important. Infection via droplets is likely the most effective way of infection. Frequent handwashing is more effective than sanitizers are and is effective in reducing the risk of infection from surfaces. Hand sanitizers can be valuable if there is no opportunity to wash one’s hands. If you do not have a sanitiser, most grocery shops and other available public places have sanitisers at the entrance. If you use it when entering and leaving the shops, the risk of infection and bringing any virus back home is minimised even without having your own sanitiser.

Any upsides that you have seen in these past few days of working from home?
Working from home so frequently is new to me. Usually I travel a lot and have little time with my family. So for me the COVID-19 situation also has an upside: I have more time with the family. My younger daughter loves the game Monopoly and we are playing this almost every second day now.

How about those who have elderly relatives to look after?
The elderly seem to be at higher risk of severe disease if infected with SARS-CoV-2. Therefore, they need to be particularly cautious and follow the recommendations of the authorities. If possible, they may consider having someone do their grocery shopping to minimise any close contact outside the family.

In the current situation, many people are working from home and it may be tempting to ask the grandparents to look after the children. I would definitely not recommend doing this. We all need to look out for each other even when it can be difficult. And remember, stay safe!

Tags: Science, We are Roche