Has studying covid led to any discoveries/realizations about other illnesses?

Personally I’m curious about whether or not the discovery that covid mostly is airborne and not transmitted via fomites has led to any similar realizations about the flu and common colds, which people have forever been told can largely be avoided by washing your hands and not touching your face. Has it ever been true, about any respiratory illness?

I don’t get stomach bugs (ever. I have not in over 4 decades of life had even one bout so I may be one of the lucky few who are immune) so has all the handwashing I do been a waste of time? Just kidding, I have an aversion to dirty hands. But really, does washing your hands really keep you from getting a chest cold?

It feels like covid has been the most intensely studied human virus in decades, so has this led to other discoveries too, in addition to my own question above?

One obvious one is that this is the first significant deployment of mRNA vaccines, which turn out to be very highly effective (there was previously an mRNA vaccine developed for SARS, but that died down quickly on its own, so it was never really needed). Going forward, that’s likely to become a common form of vaccine for lots of other diseases.

But to your specific question, regardless of the method by which it works, there have been direct studies of the effectiveness of handwashing in fighting cold and flu outbreaks. It really does help. And transmission via dirty hands is believed to be a large part of why children are so often vectors of those diseases (notably, they’re much less so for covid, a fact which initially surprised researchers).

It seems as though it would be difficult to separate out kids having dirty hands from kids the same ages also not knowing to cover their coughs and sneezes. We put masks on kids 2 and up last year and they also didn’t get the flu or RSV at nearly the rates they normally do, so…it reminds me of the cases of people allegedly getting covid from elevator buttons and trash cans early on, pre-mask mandates, when apparently no one wondered if the person touching the button/trash can had also coughed in the vicinity.

Well, maybe. The problem with mRNA viruses is that the lipid nanoparticle carrying the mRNA tends to degrade pretty quickly, hence the extreme cryogenic ‘cold chain’ requirements for distribution which are quite expensive and essentially require grouping vaccinations together, unlike the influenza vaccines which can be given one at a time. The mRNA vaccines are impressive for the speed at which they can be developed and how precisely they can be targeted to specific proteins, but adenovirus vaccines were developed and approved coincident to them and do not have the complex cold chain distribution limitations. There is still a lot of trade space and innovations yet to be seen in vaccine development. mRNA technology probably has a bigger future in cancer treatments and vaccines than it does in infectious disease.

Stranger

While it wasn’t completely unheard of, I don’t believe that the effect of droplets turning into aerosols through evaporative shrinking was taken into account in most models. Due to this, instead of droplets landing harmlessly on the floor after a few seconds, the fine aerosols that they sometimes turn into can stay suspended for much longer.

Yeah, I was going to mention study of droplets/aerosols. There’s been some good science, including some debunking of (false) conventional wisdom that has been passed down through scholarly articles and textbooks.

In addition, study of “long covid” will be helpful in understanding and treating similar illness. Covid is not unique in causing a post-viral syndrome. It happens from other illnesses, too. Covid may cause it at a higher rate, but of course the main thing is seeing all of these cases happening at once. So it’s getting more attention, and there’s a larger population needing help, and a larger population to study. It may end up helping lots of people with the same symptoms, who never had covid.

That is a really excellent point; even beyond specific post-infection sequelae of symptomatic illness there are a whole array of inflammatory and neurological syndromes falling under the general categories of fibromyalgia and dysaesthesia that current medical science just cannot generally explain or even definitively diagnose, and while there has been speculation that some subset of these may be sequelae to of subsymptomatic viral infection there is very little research or literature in the area. Other illness, including the ‘common’ flu can have such effects but they are generally rare (post-polio syndrome being a notable exception, and we still don’t really understand polio very well) so general research into PASC may provide more general insights.

Stranger

Considering how mild last year’s flu season was, I’d say we now have some large-scale practical evidence of the benefits of social distancing and wearing face masks.

Maybe, but it’s more likely that closing the schools did more to suppress the flu season than anything else. Also the reduction in international travel contributed too.

A lot of places only had remote school for the fall, and had a significant number of kids go back in the spring wearing masks. Still no large RSV/flu outbreaks there. And we didn’t see much in the way of adults getting the flu either.

I think the jury’s still out- we do know that masking is effective against influenza*, but there are a lot of confounding factors as to what the causes of the historically low flu season of 2020-2021 were.

  • Anecdotally… over the Christmas holidays of 2019, my MIL had honest-to-God influenza when we all showed up, she went to the doctor ASAP and wore a mask / kept away from everyone once she was diagnosed- basically a COVID dry-run sort of situation. NOBODY in the family including FIL, got the flu as a result. I was pretty convinced of the efficacy of masking and social distancing after that demonstration, but never expected to see it in action again so soon.

At the tail end of a season with little actual flu? I wouldn’t expect much in the way of outbreaks, even if the kids didn’t mask.

But we’re just arguing about what’s the biggest factor. Masks and distancing were certainly a significant factor; I just think that school closings was a bigger one.