The Current

Evolving picture of COVID-19 doesn't mean virus itself is changing, says doctor

What have we learned about COVID-19 since the pandemic started? We ask doctors what we now know from these initial months, and what questions remain unanswered.

During COVID-19, keeping abreast of medical info 'accelerated by a factor of 100'

A medical staffer holds the hand of a patient in the ICU of the Bassini Hospital near Milan, Italy, earlier this month. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

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The shifting picture of how COVID-19 affects the body doesn't necessarily mean the disease itself is changing, according to an infectious disease specialist. 

Dr. Matthew Oughton said it's more likely that a "massive surge of cases" is highlighting a wide range of health impacts.

"Generally speaking, for any one infectious disease, we don't see — usually — a huge number of cases all at once," said Oughton, who practises at Jewish General Hospital and is a professor at McGill University in Montreal.

But with a high number of COVID-19 cases, "it's not uncommon that we're coming across the less common manifestations as well," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

While COVID-19 was initially thought to primarily attack the lungs, there are now reports of liver and kidney damage, and some neurological effects, including strokes. Reports also indicate a wide range of symptoms, and while some patients recover quickly, others face a far more debilitating sickness.

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Oughton said it's not unusual for doctors to deal with evolving information, and learn on the job like this.

"If you're doing this job correctly and doing this job well, you're always learning as you go, refining your personal data set, using that to become a better clinician, a better diagnostician," he said.

"This is just that, but accelerated by a factor of 100."

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti agreed, saying that "we've all been learning there's certain situations that we have to prepare to be wrong."

"It's important to listen to all the different viewpoints and then go forward, at the very bottom line, based on evidence," said Chakrabarti, an infectious disease physician with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont.

Unknowns 'unnerving' for public

COVID-19 became the official name for the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus on Feb. 11. It was named by the World Health Organization, and declared a global pandemic a month later.

In the 12 weeks since, scientists and doctors have learned a lot about the disease, but without a vaccine and new cases every day, many questions remain.

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Dr. Jennifer McCombe, a neurologist at the University of Alberta, said it's understandable that the evolving information could be "unnerving" for the public.

"I think the things that make me feel better is that everybody is working hard to figure out why this is happening," she said.

She said Canada is doing well at flattening the curve, and that it had the advantage of being hit with cases later than other countries.

"We have the benefit of learning from other places, and learning how to stop the spread, and essentially try to mitigate all of the problems that could be happening."

Oughton said that while some early steps had proven successful and others had not, it all amounts to "the scientific method."

"We're learning more about this, we're constantly refining," he told Galloway. 

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He added that he hasn't seen such a global level of co-operation before.

"I think that is really encouraging, not only for helping us as a planet come to grips with this infection, [but] understand this infection better and deal with this infection," he said. 

"But I'm also hopeful that this is setting the stage for such collaborative efforts to continue even when SARS-CoV-2 is a distant memory."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Emily Rendell-Watson and Rachel Levy McLaughlin.

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