In December 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) was presented with cases of pneumonia of foreign etiology detected in Wuhan, a large city in the Hubei province of China. Soon after, reports began to surface and a new virus that specialists had never seen in humans before was identified.
Since then, this ‘coronavirus’ has started to disseminate among the inhabitants of China and has caused a global public health emergency (declared by World Health Organization), leading prominent authorities to classify it as an outbreak. The virus has since spread to other countries, both inside and outside Asia, sickening more than seventy-three thousand people worldwide, and killing at least 1868 of them, so far (as of 18th February, 2020. Source: Aljazeera).
So, what really are these viruses?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that target the respiratory systems of mammals and affect them. They cause illness ranging from the common cold to diseases like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, respectively, as discussed later). They are classified into four genera- alpha, beta, gamma and delta. Owing to their unique characteristics, alpha and beta mostly affect mammals while the other two target birds. Thus, the ones that are transmissible to humans are alpha and beta.
The word “corona” is Latin for “crown”.
The virus got its name simply owing to the spike proteins that form a ring around the top of the virus, when seen under a microscope. You will see only one singular RNA strip. Then, there is a membrane studded with these proteins. When they hit the body, the proteins attach themselves to the host cells and the RNA gets injected to the cell’s nucleus as a result of which more viruses are reproduced. This leads to infection, the severity of which depends on various factors.
One of these factors is the part of the body the virus has latched upon. Some coronaviruses attach themselves to the lungs. They can be more severe than the ones that attach to the nose or throat. The other factor is the protein the virus produces. Different genes imply different proteins. Some viruses produce proteins that can fight the immune system. It is why the patients get sicker when they need to deploy even bigger immune responses.
A brief history- Tracing the origin of the virus
For the longest time since its discovery in the 1960s, the effects of Coronavirus were considered pretty mild; when in 2002, a fatal variant commenced spreading in and around China. This was the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome pandemic—SARS-CoV. It was typically responsible for a life-threatening form of pneumonia. It first surfaced in South China, in the Guangdong Province in November 2002.
However, it soon spread from South China to Hong Kong and then to around 37 countries all over the world.
The incubation period for this virus to kick in was found to be around 7 days after which, it could cause severe malfunctioning of the lungs, liver or even the heart. It was only brought under control as late as July 2003 and by then, about eight thousand cases had already been reported. With a mortality rate of 9.6 percent, SARS was responsible for around 750 deaths.
The next variant of coronavirus surfaced more recently in 2012. This was the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS-CoV. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia and then moved on to other countries. It soon reached the US as well; and the largest outbreak was reported in South Korea in 2015. It has affected 2500 people since then. This virus in particular bound to a protein found in the lower respiratory tract and the gastrointestinal tract, so that, in addition to causing respiratory problems, the virus also often caused kidney failure.
In order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the virus and its origin, source, etc, please watch this short video.
Now, after discussing the previous cases, let’s talk about its basic source.
In the most common cases, the carrier has almost always been found to be Bats. Although what needs to be noted here is that bats do not always directly transmit these viruses to humans. Instead, this transmission occurs via an intermediary animal- most commonly the domestic pet of the person. The carriers could also be milk or undercooked meat of the infected animal, or even mucus, urine and faeces.
However, it is not always possible to determine which animal begins the process of dissemination, and it obviously differs from place to place. For example, Civet cats (usually found in Africa and parts of tropical Asia) were blamed for spreading SARS-CoV. These were particularly sold at a live animal market in Guangzhou, China. Similarly, MERS-CoV was known to be spread via dromedaries (a type of camel, also called the Arabian Camel).
The most recent ‘novel Coronavirus’, 2019-nCoV, is from the same family of viruses as SARS-CoV but it is not the same virus. Thus, owing to its close genetic ties with SARS, researches named the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, Covid-19. The World Health Organization was given the responsibility of finding a name that did not particularly refer to a place, animal, individual or group of people, and which was also easy to pronounce.
Now, initial reports for this virus linked its dissemination to a seafood market in Central Wuhan. However, eventually, this source was dismissed as even though the market was shut on January 1, 2020- cases were still rampant in the region. Moreover, considerable number of patients were found to not been frequenting the market, therefore, suggesting that humans can pass this virus to each other. Thus, it can be said that a true and definite source has not been identified yet.
Coronovirus: How do you stop it from spreading?
This makes it crucial for us to then classify the ways in which the new virus can be transmitted. It is commonly believed that viruses can be transmitted via a fluid secreted from the respiratory system. Thus, coronaviruses have been known to spread from person to person in the following ways-
• A basic touch or handshake with an infected person
• Coughing and sneezing without covering the mouth
• Making contact with a surface earlier touched by an infected person and not washing your hands thereafter
However, these are just precautionary causes of sorts. Researchers are still trying to figure out how these viruses are spread between humans. Moreover, another aspect that remains unclear is how likely patients with mild symptoms are to transmit the virus as compared to patients with more severe symptoms.
The new virus is mostly unchartered territory with no vaccine against it. However, one development in this field is the recent replication of this virus by various scientists. This simply implies that it will now be easier to detect the virus in people who show early symptoms.
The Top Things to Know About Coronavirus
Typically, the incubation period for this virus is two to fourteen days. However, as mentioned earlier, severe cases can now be almost immediately identified. The most common symptoms include breathlessness, fever, and coughing. But these vary from person to person and some people in fact may show no symptom at all. This virus can be diagnosed by testing respiratory fluids like mucus from the nose or simply, blood.
People are worried that this outbreak will evolve into a pandemic.
One cannot ignore how rampant the spread of this virus has been. It is very difficult to keep a track of its whereabouts. As of February 19, 2020, this virus has spread to 27 countries all over the world even though the effects are nowhere as rampant as China. It is also easily spreading to the people who take care of the patients. However, researchers have confirmed that the likelihood of this evolving into a pandemic is very low.
This is because the greatest risk of infection is found to be for people who reside in China or have recently visited the place.
Moreover, very few cases have been reported in places like India, and Iran. Further, very few communities in the entirety of the USA have contracted this virus. There are talks of a vaccine being developed, but the trials will take months before it can get released to the public.
Although research on this new virus is still going on, what has been noted in other coronaviruses is the fact that one can get infected with common cold via this virus more than once within six months. This is because its antibodies do not last for a long time. Another reason is the fact that antibodies against one strain of virus may be useless for other strains of the same virus. This makes people even more worrisome.
However, it is crucial to note that even though this new coronavirus is more infectious than the other coronoviruses, the number of infections caused by it is lesser than other influenza viruses like Swine flu (H1N1). Further, the mortality rate of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 is 2-3%. Even though this percentage may be higher than that of common flu, the number of deaths caused by the latter at the same time is much higher.
The major difference between this virus and common flue is that our system is more prepared to deal with common flu than with this uncommon virus. As mentioned earlier, antibodies against it are also super temporary.
The fact that treatment for this virus is still being researched upon has further made governments take drastic measures. They are discouraging people from traveling to China and countries outside Asia are discouraging tourists from the continent. In this respect, WHO has also issued travel advice for the world population (you can read them here.)
Breaking the myths of Coronavirus
1. The most common myth about this virus is that it is actually a bio-weapon leak. This misinformation was spread by various social media posts. They backed their claims by stating that this is actually a Chinese strategy to control their population. However, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, this is not possible as similar viruses have earlier been found in China and the Middle East. Moreover, the chances of virus springing from animals are very high.
2. The second myth surrounding this virus is that a patented vaccine exists for it. However, researchers have confirmed the non-existence of said vaccine. Moreover, the belief that this virus can be controlled by gargling with bleach or popping pills like steroids and anti-biotics is also untrue. In fact, some of these practices may even be harmful for patients already suffering from harmful ailments like liver or kidney failure.
What’s promising in this respect is that doctors are incessantly researching on the treatment for this virus. They have recently discovered that the combination of antiretroviral drugs is capable of attacking molecules that coronaviruses use to replicate. One can also take Over-the-Counter medications to cure fever and infection.
3. The next myth springs from the fear of buying Chinese products in this afflicted climate. Researchers have confirmed that it is not possible for people to contract this virus simply by opening packages shipped from China. This is because the virus is known to not being capable of staying alive on surfaces for a long time. Moreover, another related myth is the “precaution” people take by wearing face masks.
Experts have recently pointed out that it would make more sense for patients to wear these masks in order to prevent infecting others. The general public wearing these makes little to no difference as the masks are usually not tight enough and droplets from infected people can still reach them. In fact, wearing these masks is rather discouraged as it depletes the supply for doctors and other professionals who genuinely need them.
Thus, keeping these myths in mind, taking precautions against this virus is of utmost importance. Here are a few measures one must take in order to prevent infection:
• Avoiding smoking areas, and smoking in general.
• Avoiding contact with people who are sick, coughing or sneezing.
• Washing hands with soap and hot water frequently.
• Drinking enough water and consuming proper fluids.
• Using a clean humidifier or a cool-mist vaporizer.
In case of further questions, you can visit the Q&A section of the Official Website of WHO.