COVID-19, which first emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019, is relentlessly sweeping across the world. The scale of the epidemic has caused chaos and led to the World Health Organisation declaring it a pandemic in early February 2020.
Understanding the virus is the preoccupation of scientists who are trying to unravel its mysteries as a first step to finding ways to stop the disease spreading, and to finding a vaccine. On a daily basis scientists are finding out new things about SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the rapidly spreading disease COVID-19.
An area of inquiry is its relationship to other coronaviruses. For example, it’s been identified as being part of the same family of coronaviruses which caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). SARS was first identified in 2002. It caused severe respiratory disease which was fatal in approximately 10% of cases. MERS, on the other hand, originated in the Middle East and although less infectious, caused death in around 37% of cases.
Scientists investigating SARS-CoV-2 have found that the structure is very similar to the SARS-CoV. But there are also a number of marked differences. For example, one of the most startling differences of COVID-19 is its rapid spread across the world.
Closing the gap in understanding these differences and similarities is what stands between scientists and a solution to the rapidly spreading disease. One vital line of inquiry into how the body is able to fight and overcome the infection is how blood types – and their associated antibodies – might influence the immune response.
Similarities and differences
SARS-Cov-2 is round in shape and has a number of proteins called spikes on the surface. These spikes attach to the same human cell receptor (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) as the SARS-CoV. This information is important as it suggests that the virus uses the same mechanism of ensuring that the viral genes enter the host cell, replicate and infect other cells. Scientists can use this to develop drugs which inhibit the spike protein from binding and so slow the ability of the virus to replicate
Another similarity is the structure of the spike protein which is called NSP15. Scientists from a number of universities in the US have studied the structure of this protein and found it to be 89% similar to the NSP15 protein in SARS-CoV.
Like COVID-19, SARS was highly infectious. But there was one quirk: not everyone who was exposed to individuals who were already infected developed the disease.
One area of research was whether blood types and naturally occurring antibodies could influence the spread or severity of infection.
The distribution of the four main blood groups (A, B, AB and O) varies across population groups and geographical regions due to natural selection, the environment and disease. Up until recently, blood groups were commonly known for their role in blood transfusion. If patients received incompatible blood, powerful naturally occurring anti-A or anti-B antibodies could cause a blood transfusion reaction.
But research has shown that blood types could also play a role in infection and how the body’s immune system responds. One theory is that blood group antigens can act as binding receptors which will allow viruses or bacteria to attach and enter the body’s cells.
An example of this is the norovirus which causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea. This virus is able to bind to ABO antigens on mucosal surfaces of the gut, and once this happens, it is able to gain entry into the host cell and then replicate. On the other hand, anti-A and anti-B antibodies may be part of the body’s natural defence and could limit or even prevent infection.
What about coronaviruses?
Doctors at a Hong Kong hospital studied this phenomenon and reported that individuals who were blood group O appeared to be less susceptible to SARS-CoV than those who were group A, B or AB. Researchers showed that the virus could express antigens on its surface similar to those found in the ABH blood group. They also reported that naturally occurring anti-A antibodies were able to inhibit or even block the binding of the virus to the host cell.
This led to the theory that group O individuals, which have both anti-A and anti-B antibodies, may have some protection against infection.
The fact that blood types and their associated antibodies influence the immune response is one of the lines of inquiry into how the body is able to fight and overcome the infection.
How this occurs in COVID-19 still requires more study to build on the work already being done.
Another discovery is that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is unique and is 10-20 times more likely to attach to human cells. This could explain the increased and more rapid spread across populations.
The structure of these unique spike proteins matter enormously because they will form the basis for the development of a vaccine.
The ABO blood group has evolved in response to disease over thousands of years. The antigens and antibodies which form part of this system interact with cells of the immune system and are able to influence the way they react. As we get to know more about SARS-CoV-2 the role of blood types, if any, may become clearer.
While there is a lot of uncertainty around the economic impact of the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak, one thing that is certain is that it will change the way we do business in the long-term.
People are moving from offline shopping to online, and the habit is unlikely to disappear when the pandemic is over. Implementing ecommerce technology could be the key to retaining customers and leveraging changing consumer behaviour moving forward.
“Over the past few years, South Africans have come to rely on the convenience of online shopping; and now with the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s to be expected that the reliance on online shopping will be intensified,” says Jonathan Smit, Managing Director of PayFast, South Africa’s leading online payment gateway. “Self-isolation and consumer worry about public places means that local businesses are being forced to find quick and innovative ways to adapt to the current crisis.”
The use of online payments and home delivery for day-to-day consumables have already been established as the new norm by companies such as Mr D Food and Pick n Pay. In response to COVID-19, these retailers have upped their game by implementing ‘no contact’ deliveries to minimise human-to-human contact and maximise sales opportunities. This is a useful model to follow for other South African businesses, who are grappling with ideas on how to best manage COVID-19.
Although it’s impossible to know exactly to what extent South African businesses will be impacted by COVID-19, it is likely that consumers who start making online purchases now during the outbreak will continue to do so going forward.
“People will spend more time shopping online because they are avoiding public spaces. The long-term effect is that they will become accustomed to browsing and buying online, and not visiting physical stores as often,” says Smit. “If businesses can provide customers with a positive online experience, the short-term losses that brands may experience now could lead to their long-term gain.”
For example, older people who are the most susceptible to COVID-19 have been advised to avoid public spaces, including shopping centres and malls; “This could mean wider adoption of ecommerce, an area that older individuals have historically avoided, mainly due to mistrust of online platforms,” says Smit.
Smit has assured PayFast merchants and buyers that they will remain a top priority during the COVID-19 outbreak. “While undoubtedly a great challenge for the world at large, and a test of the viability of many businesses, we need to continue with business as usual. As with any obstacle in the business world, we cannot allow things to grind to a halt. This is the time to adapt, to evolve and to move forward.”
Walmart-owned Massmart announced on Thursday in a notice to shareholders that 23 Dion Wired stores will stop trading from today. It will still decide whether it will close 11 non-performing Masscash stores, the notice read.
The announcement comes following a previous statement issued on 13 January 2020, that the retailer would enter into a S189 consultation process, in terms of the Labour Relations Act.
"Since 13 January 2020, management have consulted extensively with the affected employees; organised labour and other relevant stakeholders under the guidance of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and all options/alternatives in respect of the potential closure of the affected stores have been exhausted," Massmart said. The board has thus taken a decision to close the non-performing stores.
The company said it is in talks with unions, to mitigate the amount of job losses - possibly deploying some of the Dion workers to vacant roles within the Massmart Group, "where practical and reasonable".
Dion Stores was founded in 1970 by Dion Friedland, an entrepreneur who had already cut his teeth – and made his fortune – with a chain of furniture and appliance stores called Rave at the age of 25.
In 1990, the Massmart group was created around six Makro stores, and in 1993 it acquired what was then a group of 20 Dion department stores. Two decades later, in 2011, Walmart took control of Massmart as part of an expansion strategy that had it eyeing the African continent.
Massmart saw its profits plunge by R1.73 billion in 2019, due to disastrous trading at Game and DionWired, and in the division that houses Cambridge Food and its Jumbo and Rhino store brands.
But Builders Warehouse and Makro continued to make decent money for the Walmart-owned group.