#FEMSmicroBlog: Why Quarantining?


Most of us have experienced some form of isolation, social (physical) distancing, or lockdown during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most strict form of isolation is quarantine to prevent a potential carrier to spread the virus. Vanesa Ayala explains in this #FEMSmicroBlog entry where the term comes from, and why quarantine is important in the fight against infectious diseases. #QuarantineDiary

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all saw on the news how Wuhan entered a strict lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. Upon the first signs of outbreak, the decision of the government was to contain movement of the population. We all understood the reasoning behind this decision. Why? Because even before the concepts of “infectious disease” or “pathogen” were known, humanity knew that an effective way of containing the spread of some diseases was by isolating the potential source of danger.

The concept of quarantine to protect a population from a disease is an old strategy that was not invented by Sci-Fi writers nor by COVID-19 experts. A quarantine is a period of time during which a person or animal that has or might have a disease is isolated to prevent the disease from spreading. Opposed to lockdowns as currently in place to limit SARS-CoV-2, in which movement of people within cities or countries is limited to various degrees, a quarantine refers to the strict isolation of a single person (or animal).

Sailors arriving in the port of Venice from Plague-endemic areas had to wait before disembarking for 40 days (‘quarantena’ in Venetian dialect).


Quarantining was here way before home office

There are documented disease control institutional responses to the plague epidemic in Italy in 1347–1352, but mentions of isolation practices to prevent spread of leprosy can already be found in the Bible (although some references to preventing spread of infectious diseases might be quite cryptic).

The origin of the word quarantine comes from ‘quarantena’ in Venetian dialect, meaning 40 days. This was the time sailors coming to Venice from Plague-endemic areas in the 14th and 15th century had to wait on the boat before disembarking.

Why precisely 40 days? The reason is not known, but interestingly at the time a period of 30 days was also occasionally applied. The length of 40 days as eponym for quarantine had historical reasons and might have derived from Hippocrates theories, the Pythagorean theory of numbers, the period of time Jesus spent in the desert, or the time believed to be necessary for dissipating the pestilential miasma from ill bodies.

Nowadays, a quarantine does not have a standard length and is defined by the incubation time of the suspected infectious agent. And even for SARS-CoV-2, with quarantine measures for travelers used as a strategy by many governments to limit the spread of the virus, time can vary from a few days to several weeks.

Many have (had) prolonged periods of working form home as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.


Quarantining during COVID-19 times

When COVID-19 broke into our lives in 2020, non-clinical interventions (quarantining, hand-washing, wearing face masks, etc.) were amongst the only weapons we had. As a result, quarantining became part of the daily vocabulary of our new normal (together with terms like virus, vaccine, heard immunity, antibodies, and infection).

The CDC recommends staying home for 14 days after the last contact with a person who has COVID-19, even if no symptoms are observed. The length for COVID-19 quarantine is based on SARS-CoV-2 incubation period, which is usually 5–6 days, but can take up to 14 days.

Quarantine has become such a big part of our lives, that you can now find online quarantine dance moves, quarantine workouts, quarantine meals, even a family band called Colt Clark and the Quarantine Kids. As many other COVID-related terms, “quarantine” is here to stay.


Quarantine or vaccination?

If quarantining is an effective public health measure, why do we have to vaccinate? Can quarantining be enough to control the COVID-19 pandemic? Arguably, COVID-19 would disappear if everyone self-isolated for a complete month. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic measure.

Putting the whole population on quarantine, beside unrealistic, would have such a huge socioeconomic impact that most countries and individuals could not cope with. The social and political consequences of restricting movement of people en masse would be unforeseeable to say the least. Sometimes, justly or unjustly, quarantine mandates are considered discriminatory and a human rights violation.

On the long term, vaccination is more effective against COVID-19 than quarantining because it is a realistic measure. On the other hand, even people vaccinated against COVID-19 still need to quarantine, as they can transmit the virus to others.

Vaccines are the best tool that we have to go back to normal. That is why it is so important for everyone in the world to vaccinate. FEMS supports vaccination and the COVAX initiative. Because with infectious disease like COVID-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Beside quarantining, several measures are currently in place to curb COVID-19, with vaccination being to best long-term solution.


About the author of this blog

Vanesa Ayala-Nunez has more than ten years of experience as research scientist in the field of infectious diseases. Working at the interface of Virology, Immunology, and Cell Biology, she has dealt with several scary human pathogens. She did her PhD at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands and a Postdoc at IRIM in France. Vanesa is now a Scientific Editor, working in France and Germany. She collaborates on different SciComm projects and is a volunteer for the FEMS Volunteers’ Translation Team.

About this blog section

In the section #QuarantineDiary for the #FEMSmicroBlog, microbiologists tell us about the challenges and opportunities from a personal and professional (development) perspective during the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. These can range from a list of useful resources to keep learning, to how researchers can offer their help, to a personal view of current events.

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The #FEMSmicroBlog welcomes external bloggers, writers and SciComm enthusiasts. Get in touch if you want to share your idea for a blog entry with us!

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