Coronavirus (COVID-19), Emerging Viral Disease and Immunogical Fitness by Rose Holmes, Registered Nutritionist

COVID-19, Emerging Viral Disease and Immunological Fitness
Rose Holmes
Registered Nutritionist, mBANT, BSc, Dip.ION, PGCE
12th March 2020


About 32,000 viruses are known to humans that can infect mammals, of which at least 128 are known to infect humans.  We are often fighting viral infections.  We tend to think of viral infections as something we cannot do much about, and since viruses have capacity to cause pandemics with high mortality rates, it is important to realise just how these infections occur, and what we can do about them.  And there are botanicals that show effect.

Viral infections are experienced by us all.  Understanding how viruses ‘work’, and how they affect the immune system may help.  And, today, with the threat of COVID-19 looming, immunological fitness must be the goal of everyone.

Viruses are classified and grouped in various ways.  One of these is by ‘family’.  For example, the Herpesvirus family includes herpes simplex (cold sores), Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus, whilst the coronavirus family includes SARS, MERS and the novel COVID-19.  Influenzas are Orthomyxoviridae and human papillomavirus (HPV) is in the family Papovaridae. There are many other virus ‘families’.   Another useful classification is according to target organ.  Whilst herpesviruses are encephalitis viral infections (i.e. they can affect nerve tissue and may cause brain damage), coronaviruses and influenza are respiratory viral infections.

Viral virulence is a measure of the severity of the disease a particular virus is capable of causing—rather than its ability to spread (which is indicated by its ability to create epidemics/pandemics).  Mortality rate is an indication of viral virulence.  Viruses use chemotactic compounds which allow it to adhere to its preferred ‘taxi’ cell.  Receptors on the viral cell communicate with the body cell, tricking it, so that it can gain entry.  The virus then can travel through the body and gain access to cells in its preferred location, so it can replicate.  Viruses can spread person-to-person via a number of body fluids, and can reach epidemic or pandemic status. 

Viruses are capable of mutation and this can occur in different ways. One of these ways is via antigenic drift—when small continual changes occur in a virus which may produce new strains.  Antigenic shift may also occur.  Antigenic shift is an abrupt and major genetic change that enables a strain to jump from one animal species to another creating a new viral strain. 

This, of course, is what is making the news at present—the antigenic shift that occurred to create the novel SARS-CoV-2 that is causing COVID-19 that is now spreading globally from China.  And emerging viral disease is a concern of health authorities worldwide. 

With the current spread of COVID-19, it is important to understand the potential effects and risks.  Those individuals with immune system issues or underlying health conditions have most risk from any virus.  This is why older individuals and some others are offered flu vaccinations yearly—since new strains of influenza virus occur regularly.  A novel virus, like COVID-19, however, is one for which there is no available vaccine and no acquired immunity.

 All individuals may benefit from knowledge of natural and botanical options in cases of viral infection—whether that is herpes simplex virus (cold sores), seasonal colds/flu or threat of COVID-19.  Nutritional Therapists, Naturopaths and Herbalists are qualified to give such advice.  Vitamins, minerals and many botanical options are readily available.

Regarding the threat posed by viruses, demographic changes, medical procedures (the way our medical system is set up facilitates microbial intermingling), viral and antibiotic resistance, economic and commercial trends, ecosystem disturbance and climatic changes all may contribute to the emergence of new (and re-emergence of old) pathogenic viruses.

And the creation of novel viruses may be facilitated by a number of concurrent factors, in particular, factory farming of pigs and chicken that increases the virulence of viruses in these animals.

The capacity to become pandemic is increased by several factors: current population density and the common practice of using day-care centres and nursing homes, and the very rapid movement of people via air travel.

Pharmaceuticals do not appear to be the answer to pandemic scenarios—these are only partially effective (and do not specifically kill, but rather inhibit the virus, and may weaken the immune system so increase future risk of infection), and stock of existing pharmaceuticals would be insufficient to deal with the numbers infected.   Vaccines, of course, would take time to be made for the specific virus. Numbers of infected individuals would likely be high—healthcare workers, hospitals, transportation workers, morticians would be amongst the first affected as these individuals would have increased exposure.  And so perhaps one can see how the problem would be compounded. 

The 1918 influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu (which, in fact, is thought to have originated in China or the USA, despite its common name), was the first of its type and the beginning of the modern influenza pandemic era.  Incidence of influenza pandemics are happening with greater frequency since 1957 and another is predicted to occur soon. 

COVID-19 is not an influenza virus.  But it is showing ability to kill.  And, in the case of the Spanish Flu (influenza) epidemic of 1918, it was the cytokine storm and resulting pneumonia that developed, killing so many.   

At the time of writing, COVID-19 does not seem to be causing deaths in those who are immunocompetent.   Containment of the virus is needed to protect those of all ages with underlying health conditions or reduced immunity, for whom COVID-19 poses a real risk.

So, whilst we should remain respectful of the virulence and potential mortality involved in viral pandemics, AND very much SHOULD exercise the hygiene cautions ANYWAY and AT ALL TIMES—coronavirus or no coronavirus—there is no need to be panic-stricken by this latest outbreak. 

Prevention and precaution are, however, ALWAYS important.  So immunological fitness should be a priority for everyone.

And perhaps what we learn from COVID-19 will help prepare us globally for the predicted (but unpredictable) next influenza pandemic.

Danger in viral epidemics comes from what is referred to as a cytokine storm—an overreaction of the immune system.  Cytokines are physiological signalling molecules—immunoregulatory proteins stimulated by the innate immune system in response to infection—with the aim to destroy the invading pathogen.   They produce inflammatory response by altering transcription, and they trigger leukocytes.  In the case of the 1918 pandemic, the immune reaction was between 100 and 1000 times the normal response.  This overreaction could, of course impact people of all ages. In the Spanish Flu pandemic, infection resulted in cytokine storm and quick death in people of all ages.

THIS type of event is what understandably triggers fear. At the time of writing, there is no indication that COVID-19 is causing a cytokine storm with effect on largely immunologically competent individuals. And, mostly, at least in the West, we are not living in the crowded trench and slum conditions suffered at the beginning of the previous century where spread was easy, and poor living conditions impacted overall health.

In all cases of viral infection, natural and botanical products may benefit prophylactically and therapeutically. Botanical antivirals work by boosting the immune system.  Chinese and Indian medicine have used botanical antivirals for a long time.  One main advantage is little or no side effects.  In China, unlike in the West, they are developing and using botanical-alone and botanical/pharmaceutical approaches and have very good outcomes.  It is unknown if, in China at the beginning of this current outbreak of COVID-19, these botanical options were included (privately or officially) in addressing the outbreak. It seems likely that, at least privately, botanicals would be used in a country with a long-standing traditional method in use.  When the outbreak ‘hits’ other parts of the world, those not using such botanicals, may suffer higher mortality rates.

Immunological fitness is the responsibility of each individual.


March 12, 2020 by Rose Holmes