Obviously, we have all heard about COVID–19, the novel coronavirus outbreak that originated at a seafood market in Wuhan China. There is a LOT of information out there about COVID–19 but there are also still many open questions that we are desperately looking for answers to. I wanted to tackle this topic from a scientific approach, so what exactly is COVID–19? The Coronavirus family is characterized as an enveloped positive strand RNA virus, much like the SARS-coronavirus that infected people in 2003, but with a slightly different genome. What does that mean? Let’s break it down.
If you think back to your high school biology class you probably learned about eukaryotic cells, in fact, you may have even built a model of it. So you may remember that our cells have lipid bilayers that make up the membrane of the cells, which essentially acts as a filter for our cells. When Coronavirus infects host cells it goes into the cells through a receptor: essentially the virus is able to interact and trick our cells to let it inside. The virus can then enter our cells and start to make copies of itself. It then leaves one cell and goes on to infect the next cell taking part of the cellular membrane with it during this process. The RNA aspect? That simply means that the virus has an RNA genome, whereas our genomic material is DNA. Viruses come in all different shapes and sizes, but a common misconception is that we can treat all viruses similarly. Although they may look alike, it is important to understand that viruses have different types of genomes (RNA vs DNA), different host receptors (they recognize different proteins on the surface of our cells), and they infect different cell types. All of this adds up to them being very hard to treat, especially with vaccines.
Rest assured that there are many people currently working to find treatments and possible vaccine candidates for coronaviruses. Since the beginning of this pandemic many scientists have been working non-stop in order to find treatment options and vaccine candidates. There are even some vaccines in phase 1 clinical trials, but in order for these vaccines to be used in humans they have to go through rigorous testing to make sure that they are safe, which takes a lot of time and money. In the end, if this virus becomes a normal occurrence, like the flu, it will be well worth it to invest the time and money now so that we will have preventative measures later!
So what’s with the social distancing? Unfortunately many people with the virus do not present symptoms until they have been infected for at least 5 days, and therefore could be walking around shedding virus particles into the public, thereby infecting other people and continuing the cycle. This is why we need social distancing. Yes, it’s inconvenient and in some cases not feasible, but it is our best defense to slow the infection down so that we aren’t overwhelming health care facilities with more cases than they can handle. Sadly, this is what Italians are facing: with an older population than other countries, many of Italy’s citizens are at higher risk and succumb quickly to the life-threatening complications the virus leads to, and the country no longer has enough resources to care for their patients with many Americans having health complications, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions, it is imperative to slow the spread of coronavirus as much as possible to protect our most vulnerable citizens. That is the main reason for cancellations and social distancing; besides washing our hands (click here for a good explanation on why this works), it is our best defense against overwhelming viral spread.
Those with 9/11-related breathing problems should take communicable diseases such as the flu seriously. Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds can help protect you. #GlobalHandwashingDay https://t.co/E35wphJtCP pic.twitter.com/p79JRIHL5e
— WTC Health Program (@WTCHealthPrgm) October 15, 2018
Finally I want to leave you with some good resources to stay up to date on reliable information about the continuations of this pandemic. For guidelines on what to do to stay safe and healthy or what to do if you think you have the virus check out the CDC’s website. For more information, you can also look at the World Health Organization (WHO)’s website. If you are a scientist or an aspiring scientist and want to engage directly with the research literature, the New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Nature, and other reputable journals are all covering this topic. For a map of confirmed cases check out this link to Johns Hopkins coverage. Also to stay up to date on Indiana COVID–19 coverage click here.
I would like to acknowledge my committee member Suchetana Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D. for training me to be a virologist and Wesley Penn for pointing me to reliable resources.