While COVID-19 bares the label "19" 2020 is the year that every conscious person will never forget. The year the world changed the year of the pandemic the "new normal". Wearing facemasks, constant sanitizing, social distancing and self isolation became common household practices. Lockdown and quarantine went from science fiction to common reality and the modern world grew acquainted to death by infectious disease on an unprecedented global scale.

Note: This article was written during the height of the pandemic in early 2021. Much has changed since then but we’ve added in some updated information as of April 2022. For post Covid relevance please read our closing article: Covid-19: Lasting Lessons from a Dying Pandemic.

In this article we present the factual information around the COVID-19 global pandemic from early origins to booster shots. If you’re interested in the ability of medical cannabis to fight the virus read Science: 4 Ways Cannabis Combats COVID-19. Now without further ado we present to you the facts.

What are the current figures?

In February 2021 confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa were approaching the 1.5-milion mark and near 50-thousand people had died while testing positive for virus. As of April 2022, partly due to the highly contagious Omicron variant the total number of positive tests in South Africa was approaching the 4-million mark with over 100,000 reported deaths. New daily cases were in the 100s with the total number of vaccines administered approaching 35 million. Worldwide there had been over 500-million confirmed cases with over 6-million people sadly losing their lives after having tested positive for Covid-19.

What are SARS-CoV-2 & COVID-19?

The name “Covid” has become as much a part of everyday colloquial language as facemasks have become part of our daily attire. It is important to note that the disease is caused by a virus both of which have separate names. Initially the disease was termed “2019-nCoV” or 2019 novel coronavirus with the first official cases reported in December 2019. It was soon thereafter named COVID-19 short for “corona virus disease 19”.

The full official name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 which stands for “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”. It is from a family of viruses known as Coronaviruses, of which there have been several in the past, most notably the original SARS outbreak in 2003 and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012.

Where did the virus come from?

There are rumours that the virus is manmade but official reports state that it most likely slipped across to a human from a bat (potentially via a pangolin intermediary) in a live food market in Wuhan City in the People’s Republic of China.

How does it enter the body?

SARS CoV 2 uses receptor mediated entry into a host body. Specifically it is known to use angiotensin converting enzyme II (ACE2) receptors which are found in human oral, nasal and lung tissue, as well as the kidneys, testes and gastrointestinal tract. In other words, the virus is most likely “caught” by breathing it in or it entering the mouth.

Can medical cannabis cure COVID-19?

In reality cures are generally very illusive. Scientists worldwide are searching for treatments but there was at the time of writing no known cure for COVID-19. Persons who develop serious symptoms will be hospitalised and receive oxygen supplementation while those who become critically ill may receive ventilation. This was more common with earlier variants such as Beta and Delta compared to the highly contagious but less severe Omicron variants.

As we revealed in Science: 4 Ways Cannabis Combats COVID-19 medical cannabis showed early potential to aid treatment on several levels. Specific Cannabis Sativa strains rich in cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may be particularly effective at blunting the overactive inflammatory immune response (cytokine storm) which can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and death.

Dexamethasone is a pharmaceutical corticosteroid used in this regard. Remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir/ritonavir and interferon drugs have questionable effects while ivermectin remains popular but somewhat controversial. Most swear it’s the solution while it’s also been said that the dose required to kill the virus may be toxic to humans.

Just how deadly is it?

Early on the variants were more severe. About 8 in 10 persons who contracted the virus had little to mild symptoms and didn’t need hospital treatment. About 15 % of people became seriously ill and needed oxygen supplementation while 5% needed intensive care and around 2 in 100 died. Complications leading to death included acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), respiratory failure, blood clots, sepsis and septic shock, multiple organ failure and severe inflammatory syndromes. Since then the Omicron variant and its multitude of sub variants proved to be more contagious but less severe in terms of symptoms and outcomes.

What are COVID variants?

There have been a number of unique COVID-19 variants in circulation throughout the world’s population to date as well as sub variants. Alpha, Beta and Gamma are no longer in circulation while Delta and Omicron continue to mutate and slip through the population as of April 2022. You can track the latest variants on the WHO’s tracking page.

Why was it so dangerous?

The fact that we had a global pandemic was hardly surprising. What was surprising was the scale of it after scares in recent history were safely contained on a much smaller scale. One of the most concerning aspects of the disease is its contagiousness. It is believed to spread through contact or in the air via the respiratory droplets of an already infected person. It may also have the ability to stay alive on surfaces for several days. Additionally infected people are able to transmit the virus while they are still asymptomatic before showing any symptoms.

SARS-CoV-2 is a “slippery” virus meaning it has the ability to mutate or change form. This means that someone can become infected for a second time via a mutated strain of which there are currently thousands in circulation. Contagiousness aside Covid-19 had a tendency to hit people with underlying health conditions or certain genetic predispositions. Not only was it highly infectious but the earlier variants caused particularly severe symptoms and outcomes.

What are the most common symptoms?

Early variant’s symptoms were more severe while modern variant’s symptoms may be likened to hay fever or flu. Symptoms can appear around 2-14 days after exposure to the virus and range from mild to severe in intensity. According to WHO commonly reported symptoms include:

Fever or chills, fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, loss of smell or taste, headache, body or muscle aches, sinus congestion, runny nose, diarrhoea, skin rashes, conjunctivitis (red eyes), nausea and vomiting.

More severe symptoms include:

Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, confusion, pain or pressure in the chest and a temperature above 38°C.

Less common severe symptoms include:

Confusion, depression, irritability, anxiety, sleep disorders, loss of consciousness, seizures and severe but rare neurological complications like stroke, nerve damage, delirium and brain inflammation.

What is Long COVID?

There are a growing number of people who end up with lasting, sometimes permanent symptoms following infection. Some people go from perceivably completely healthy to unable to function. What we now know as “Long COVID” is comparable to the many sufferers of similar post viral conditions who’s voices were previously silenced by the umbrella label of chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis. ME/CFS sufferers are now seeing glimmers of light thanks to Long Covid research funding and findings.

Who is at risk of severe COVID-19?

Those who have comorbid (coexisting) conditions seem to be at the greatest risk of severe illness or even death. The elderly are a high risk population group not least because most illness counts tend to rise with age. In other words they are more likely to have coexisting diseases or health conditions.

People with diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure) as well as those who are immune-compromised or suffer from respiratory disease are at greater risk of more severe illness. Obesity, smoking, cancer, pregnancy and kidney disease are also high risk comorbidities. The list goes on but factors like age, immune deficiencies and coexisting health conditions appear to increase the likelihood of more severe illness and unfavourable outcomes.

When to get tested?

In truth few people voluntarily get tested anymore. However while the majority of the world has gone back to normal if you are going to be in contact with anyone who falls within a vulnerable population group it’s best to take precaution. If you’re experiencing symptoms or have come into contact with a known COVID-19 patient it may be a good idea to get tested and self isolate to avoid further transmitting the virus. You can take a PCR test for antibodies which will tell you if you’ve had the virus in the past 3 months whether you showed symptoms or not. A negative result may indicate that you aren’t currently carrying the virus however we advise acting based on symptoms.

Do supplements help?

It’s a good idea to speak to your doctor and test your levels of certain compounds through a local pathology lab to ensure no deficiencies. A white blood cell count will tell you if your immune system is healthy and not deficient. In summer get plenty of sunshine and keep those natural vitamin D levels up. In winter consider a supplement containing all necessary cofactors.

Diet is always the first step for vitamins and minerals. If you start to feel any symptoms a vitamin C supplement can help to support your body and immune system. Zinc is supportive in many ways while also preventing viral replication. If you’re going to supplement large doses of zinc make sure you don’t become copper deficient.

Our advice is to seek guidance from a highly regarded nutritionist to support your wellbeing through a customized nutrition and wellness plan regardless of your COVID status or history.

Vaccines and boosters to the rescue?

Vaccines were the where all the hype was in the early days of the pandemic. Countries couldn’t get their hands on them fast enough. The hope was that mass vaccinations would stop the spread and save vulnerable lives. The World Health Organization backed a Covax program to vaccinate the world’s population with the following figures correct as of February 2021.

Viral vector vaccines: South Africa first started using the AstraZeneca-Oxford viral vector vaccine from the Serum Institute of India which had a 70% success rate over two doses as it is stable around 2-6° C (fridge temperature). Its use however was quickly halted after it was after questions arose about its effectiveness against the dominant 501Y.V2 coronavirus variant. The focus then shifted to a single shot Johnson & Johnson alternative which showed to be 66-85 % effective against severe disease after 28 days.

Messenger RNA vaccines: The Pfizer (95% success rate after 7 days) and Moderna (94.1% effective after 14 days) vaccines need storage at -70°C and -20°C respectively. Both of these mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines were initially less practical for the SA context. These have been associated with rare anaphylaxis severe allergic reactions.

Both viral vector and mRNA vaccines cause cells to produce the spike protein seen in SARS-CoV2 infections in order for our immune systems to develop antibodies without having to risk the complications of COVID-19. They are however not without risk or controversy. Comparisons over vaccine effectiveness are like comparing apples to oranges due to variations in the dosage, timing and location (new viral variants) as well as measures of the studies performed.

While it’s likely that early vaccinations saved the lives of at risk people the jury is still out on the effectiveness and practicality of booster shots versus natural immunity.

Will COVID-19 ever end?

That was once a very big question. Simply put we now know that the future of this once deadly disease is likely intertwined with our own future as a human race. Those of us who’ve survived the global pandemic are already starting to speak of “Covid” in the same breath as the flu or common cold. In fact while the flu is caused by the human influenza virus, Coronaviruses cause about 15 % of common colds. Also while the human body is a natural host to influenza B virus, influenza A can cause flu epidemics and even pandemics as well. Perhaps it’s time to change our mentality and move forward.

Is there any good news?

The good news is that if you’ve made it this far you’re doing something right. If you’re a vulnerable person who’s followed all the recommended safety guidelines stringently you may have been lucky enough to not contract the virus at all or caught a less severe variant. Sanitize and wash (scrub thoroughly) hands frequently, wear a mask, practise social distancing, keep rooms well ventilated, stay away from crowds and avoid any unnecessary or non essential contact with people.

If you’re otherwise healthy and catch the virus there’s a very good chance you’ll recover without any need for medical intervention following only mild symptoms at worst.