How can such a miniscule packet of genetics cause such chaos around the world? And why can’t we simply eradicate it? Those are the questions on everyone’s lips as the new coronavirus outbreak is having serious consequences for everyone around the world.
What exactly is a virus?
Viruses are resilient little entities made up of proteins and genetic material that can only replicate within an environment inside another living host (such as a human or animal). Microbiologists debated in the past whether a virus can still be seen as “alive” when it has no host to infect.
Prof Nigel Brown, a microbiology expert from the University of Edinburgh, simply defines a virus as a “gift-wrapped nucleic acid", whether it’s a DNA or RNA or whether it is single or double stranded.
And what about the coronavirus?
We now know that the Covid-19 virus is a single-stranded RNA virus with a capsid (a little cap over the virus) that connects to its host.
While it’s essentially dead (well, dormant and zombie-like) on its own, the power lies in its ability to encode inside the host and spread through saliva or droplets. We also recently learned that this particular virus can survive for at least three days on hard, non-porous surfaces such as plastic and metal, making it easy to spread, especially when people are slack about hygiene.
But why can’t we simply kill it?
The fact of the matter is, the new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 found a host, and spread from that host to several other hosts – and ended up causing a worldwide pandemic. It gained a steady foothold in a huge number of hosts all over the world – whether symptomatic or not. (The lack of symptoms in many people is the reason why a lock-down helps to curb the spread.)
In the case of a respiratory virus such as the Covid-19 virus, the virus has a strong foothold in two places – firstly in the nose and throat, from where it easily spreads through saliva, cough droplets and mucus, and secondly from further down in the lungs, from where it is harder to spread, although it can cause fatal damage there, especially in people with preexisting respiratory conditions.
Why does it spread so easily?
In some people who contract the virus and suffer from mild or no symptoms, it means that the virus lodged and multiplied into the nose and throat, while in the more serious cases it lodges and multiplies in the lungs.
This virus is a double-whammy, according to an article in Washington Post – it’s as contagious as a cold (if not more), and has the potential to be as lethal as coronavirus which caused the SARS outbreak in 2003.
In the case of this new virus, the incubation period tends to be longer (anywhere between one and 14 days, the median being 5.1 days) and therefore people are contracting it long before they are even aware of it.
Another thing that favours the Covid-19 virus is its size and design. It is three times bigger than other pathogens that cause diseases such as dengue fever and Zika, and can reproduce and replicate much faster.
What about other pandemics?
While we can’t compare the current coronavirus outbreak to previous influenza outbreaks, the past pandemics in history had some things in common, making them easy to spread and hard to kill.
Just like all the other great outbreaks (some were classified as pandemics, some not) – the flu outbreaks of 1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009, Ebola, SARS and MERS, the virus started out as zoonotic, which means it lived in an animal host and jumped to a human. All these viruses encode their genetic material into RNA. According to Gary Whittaker, a Cornell University professor of virology, a virus as something that can easily switch between being dead or alive.
How will we be able to fight this pandemic?
As we know now, viruses are complex, extremely clever and resilient – an antiviral that stops activity in its tracks needs to be specific to that particular virus. Right now, we don’t have a targeted cure for the Covid-19 virus, but doctors have been treating cases with existing drugs.
Experts believe that this virus is still in its early, strong phase – the ultimate goal is that is becomes like seasonal flu – not as deadly, novel or serious. It will, however, retain the ability to replicate and hang around forever.
In the meantime, the best we can do is to rely on social distancing, practicing good hygiene and flattening the so-called "curve" of the virus to prevent the vulnerable among us from contracting it. We're hoping, therefore, that although the virus might still be around, its RNA will change in such a way that although it will survive, it will merely cause a mild infection in its host.
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