Unanswered COVID-19 questions multiply: Why some people get really sick and others not? Does social distancing really matter? Are models right?

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Credit: Vahid Salemi / Associated Press

In a pandemic characterized by extreme uncertainty, one of the few things experts know for sure is the identity of the pathogen responsible: a virus called SARS-CoV-2 that is closely related to the original SARS virus. Both are members of the coronavirus family, which is entirely distinct from the family that includes influenza viruses. Scientists know the shape of proteins on the new coronavirus’s surface down to the position of individual atoms. …

But much else about the pandemic is still maddeningly unclear. Why do some people get really sick, but others do not? Are the models too optimistic or too pessimistic? Exactly how transmissible and deadly is the virus? How many people have actually been infected? How long must social restrictions go on for? Why are so many questions still unanswered?

Related article:  Racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, using technologies both old and new

The confusion partly arises from the pandemic’s scale and pace. Worldwide, at least 3.1 million people have been infected in less than four months. Economies have nose-dived. Societies have paused. In most people’s living memory, no crisis has caused so much upheaval so broadly and so quickly. …

But beyond its vast scope and sui generis nature, there are other reasons the pandemic continues to be so befuddling—a slew of forces scientific and societal, epidemiological and epistemological.

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