Friday, February 19, 2021

[uwiwidyy] "If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?"

Answer: No, because the cold virus can survive a very long time (much longer than a couple of weeks) inside immunocompromised individuals.

Written before the COVID-19 pandemic, the chapter (pp. 114-118) covering this question in Randall Munroe's "what if?" book is very prescient.  The chapter is not available on the what-if website, so we summarize some of its points here:

Common cold persists for weeks and months, "conceivably years", in transplant patients whose immune systems have been artificially suppressed to prevent rejection.

L. Kaiser, J.D. Aubert, et al., "Chronic Rhinoviral Infection in Lung Transplant Recipients," American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Vol. 174; pp. 1392-1399, 2006, 10.1164/rccm.200604-489OC

Human rhinovirus seems to only be able to infect humans.  (No discussion about common cold strains transmitted by other viruses.)

Cnatan-na-gall "stranger's cough" was a phenomenon observed on the remote islands of St. Kilda, Scotland.  Regularly, a new common cold strain, introduced by regular but infrequent boat traffic, swept through the islands.  After several weeks, most of the residents got infected and then the new strain died out.

P. Stride, "The St. Kilda boat cough under the microscope," The Journal - Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 2008; 38:272-9.

A large portion of the chapter is devoted to humorously (as is the style of the book) predicting the social and economic consequences of attempting to wipe out common cold by social distancing (not referred to by that term), and, in the context of both the approach not working due to immunocompromised individuals mentioned above and common cold only being a nuisance, arguing that the costs are not worth it.  The difficulties and costs of social distancing described are (modulo the lens of humor) exactly what we are encountering now as we try to mitigate COVID-19 through social distancing.

Future post: extrapolating the ideas from this chapter to COVID-19.

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