On December 31st, 2019, Chinese officials informed the World Health Organization that a group of strange cases of pneumonia were detected in the city of Wuhan. The cause of the pneumonia was unknown, but a week later, Chinese health officials confirmed that the cases were associated with a novel coronavirus.
Since January, this recent outbreak of a novel coronavirus has reached the scale of a health pandemic. With the global number of cases skyrocketing in recent weeks, it’s understandable that a sense of concern or unease may also be bubbling up. But what really is the coronavirus, and is it something that we need to worry about?
What Exactly is the Coronavirus?
The first cluster of coronavirus cases has mostly been pinpointed to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, a wet market full of exotic animals. The poorly regulated environment, where many live and dead animals were placed in close contact with each other, potentially provided the opportunity for the virus to infect the human population. However, other early cases of the coronavirus included patients that did not frequent the wet market, so it is unknown what the singular source of the novel coronavirus is. The recent coronavirus outbreak has now been renamed by the World Health Organization as COVID-19, and it is a new strain of virus that has never been seen before in humans.
Coronaviruses, more formally known as Coronaviridae, are helical RNA viruses that circulate among animals and cause diseases in mammals and birds. Animals that are infected by coronaviruses are called carriers, and DNA evidence suggests that bats were likely the carriers of COVID-19, though this is not completely confirmed yet. This particular type of coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transmitted from animals to humans. COVID-19 also belongs to the the same family of coronaviruses related to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) that caused a global epidemic to break out during 2003.
How Does the Coronavirus Spread?
To learn more about how COVID-19 spreads, it’s helpful to understand what a virus is and how it works. A virus is a microscopic parasite that utilizes bodies as a host for replication. What’s interesting about viruses is that they’re within a gray area between living and nonliving, as viruses are able to replicate themselves, though only able to do so through the help of the body.
Once a virus enters your body – in the case of COVID-19, the virus would typically enter through the nose of the mouth – it begins to look for cells. Once the virus discovers a cell, the outside of the virus binds to a receptor on the outside cell membrane. The receptor is akin to a gatekeeper on the outside of the cell that regulates what goes in and out of the cell. After finding the specific type of cell with the correct receptors, COVID-19 is able to enter your body’s cell.
A human body’s cell has many wonderful and complex functions, many of which are carried by organelles, structures with specialized functions in the cell. Typically, proteins are created from the genetic code in the cell by ribosomes, which is a type of organelle. The ribosome follows the genetic instructions provided by the DNA of the cells to make specific proteins that each have many beneficial functions for the human body. However, upon entering the cell, the virus hijacks the cell and begins to tell the ribosome to use the genetic instructions encompassed in the COVID-19 RNA, so the ribosome will begin to replicate viruses. The cell becomes a virus-making machine, creating more COVID-19 viruses that will spread across the human body to enter new cells and repeat the process of replication.
Once the body contains the coronavirus, the person becomes a carrier that will potentially spread COVID-19 to other humans. COVID-19 is an airborne disease, meaning that it is transmitted through a person’s respiratory secretions such as coughs or sneezes, physical contact, or physically touching a surface with the virus and then your nose or mouth.
How Deadly is the Coronavirus?
With over 70 thousand cases and but only around 2000 confirmed deaths, the recent mortality rate for COVID-19 has been hovering around two to three percent. Most cases of deaths were from patients who had weaker immune systems, especially the elderly. In fact, many of the symptoms of COVID-19, a fever, dizziness, runny nose, and a sore throat, are similar to the symptoms of the common flu. Instead, perhaps what is more deadly about COVID-19 is that it compromises your immune system. As more and more viruses are replicated in your body, signals start to pick up on the foreign invaders, which in turn alerts your body’s immune system to start mounting an attack against the virus. The immune system is intricate and complex, but one of the most common defense mechanisms of our immune systems is to create antibodies to fend off the viruses. However, up-keeping defense against the virus means that while your immune system is focused on COVID-19, your body is more susceptible to other harmful pathogens, such as bacteria and alternate viruses.
Another scary prospect about COVID-19 is the potential that it originated from bats. According to a study conducted at the University of California Berkeley, bats have extremely strong immune responses, as they frequently face viruses and are primed to respond to them quickly. This in turn drives viruses that are able to reproduce quickly to be selected for, increasing the virulence, or harmfulness, of the virus. There is still much that is unknown about COVID-19, but the high virulence of other viruses that originated from bats does raise concerns about the potential impact that COVID-19 may have on the human population in the near future.
The Bigger Picture: Why Does COVID-19 Matter?
COVID-19 arrives in lieu of other pandemics of coronavirus occurring in the recent years, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The importance of understanding the current situation on a personal level may be to fulfill some curiosity or ease some anxiousness, but the need to better understand the COVID-19 outbreak is definitely for the global good. There are countless critical questions regarding COVID-19 that remain unanswered. How did the first human become infected? What was the true origin of the virus? With more research and knowledge gathered on COVID-19, citizens from around the world, public health organizations, and governments can move towards efforts to make sure similar incidents in the future are mitigated, benefiting the global community as a whole.
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