Coronavirus belongs to a family of viruses that cause illness in humans and animals. Seven different types have been found in people. This includes those responsible for COVID-19 and the SARS and MERS epidemics.
This virus, in particular, is the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Related Coronavirus 2 and causes the disease COVID-19. It originated in December 2019 from Wuhan in China. It started spreading to other countries in the following months with the cases doubling within days.
What Happens When it Infects Humans?
A virus is essentially a protein particle. It has a protein coat, and sometimes a lipid envelope too. This encases its genetic material which can be DNA or RNA. Whereas the genomes of some viruses like chickenpox and smallpox are made of DNA like humans, those of coronaviruses are made of the closely-related RNA.
RNA viruses have small genomes that are subject to constant change. These changes, called mutations, help the virus adapt to and infect new host species. It is thought that the new coronavirus likely originated from bats but it is not yet known whether mutations allowed this jump from animals to humans.
A virus is on the boundary line of what’s classified as living and nonliving. This is because it cannot reproduce on its own – hence it is nonliving. However, what makes viruses so interesting is that they can act as living microorganisms when they infect a host cell!
This is because they can take over the living host cell they infect and use its machinery e.g. it’s enzymes and organelles such as ribosomes, to make more viral particles and thus reproduce.
How Does the Coronavirus Spread?
Coronavirus can spread through surfaces. However, it is unsure how long it can survive on them. Its main way of spreading is through droplet infections. This happens when people cough, or if you touch someone who’s ill and then your face when you, for instance, rub your eyes or nose.
The virus starts its journey here and then progresses deeper into the body. Its destinations are the intestines, the spleen or the lungs. The lungs are where the virus causes the most havoc. Interestingly enough, just a few of these microscopic coronaviruses can result in a life-threatening situation.
What Actually Happens in the Lungs?
Billions of epithelial cells line the surface of the lungs. These are the border cells of your body which line your organs and mucosa. Coronavirus binds to a specific receptor on its victim’s membranes called ACE2 Receptor. It then injects its genetic material into these cells.
The host cell is unaware that a virus has infected it. It continues to synthesise and reassemble new proteins. While doing this, it inadvertently also copies the viral proteins (because remember that viruses are simply protein particles!).
It continues to form more and more copies of the virus until it reaches a critical point. The cell then receives one final order: to self-destruct or otherwise called apoptosis. The cell breaks apart and releases all of the coronavirus particles it had synthesised. These viruses then attack more cells.
The number of infected cells grows exponentially. After about 10 days, millions of body cells are infected. Billions of these viral particles swamp the lungs. So far, the coronavirus has not done any actual damage.
However, the coronavirus now releases the actual beast on you. And guess what that is? Your own immune system! The very thing that’s there to protect you starts attacking you. This is because the immune system can be pretty dangerous and needs to be carefully regulated.
What Actually Happens to the Immune System?
The immune cells move into the lungs to fight the virus. Corona infects some of them and creates confusion. Cells communicate mostly through cell-signaling proteins called cytokines. These are tiny information proteins and the majority of the immune reactions are controlled by them. For example, interleukin1 and interleukin2 are two cytokines involved in T-cell and B-cell response when you are infected by a pathogen.
Coronavirus causes these cells to overreact and things go a bit haywire. It puts the immune system into a fighting frenzy which then sends way more immune cells than it should. This causes a waste of resources and causes more damage than good.
Two kinds of immune system cells, in particular, cause the greatest damage:
- Neutrophils: These cells are great at killing stuff, including our own cells. As they arrive in their thousands, they start producing enzymes that destroy as many coronaviruses as our own body cells.
- Killer T-Cells: These cells cause infected cells to undergo apoptosis. They start ordering the healthy cells to kill themselves too.
As more and more immune system cells arrive, the more damage they do and the more healthy lung tissue they kill. This can cause irreversible damage which leads to lifelong disabilities.
What Happens in Severe Cases?
In most cases, the immune system slowly regains control. It starts to kill the infected cells and also stops the viruses from infecting any more cells. Therefore, most infected people recover from the virus after showing mild symptoms.
However, many cases become severe or critical. In such severe cases, millions of the epithelial cells die and the lungs’ protective lining is gone. Bacteria, that wouldn’t have been a problem otherwise, can now infect the alveoli (tiny air sacs used for gas exchange) These are opportunistic infections.
Patients can get pneumonia and experience severe breathing problems. They are put on ventilators to increase their survival chances.
After fighting at its full capacity for weeks, the immune system now becomes overwhelmed by millions of bacteria. These bacteria enter the blood and overrun the body. If this happens, death is very likely.
How is the Coronavirus Different from the Flu?
The coronavirus is often compared to the common flu. But beware! It is actually much more lethal than the flu. It is much more contagious and spreads faster than the flu.
Protecting Ourselves Against It
Coronavirus is a pandemic and there are two futures for it: fast spread or slow spread. The future we will see depends on our reaction to the outbreak right now.
A fast pandemic will be deadly as it will cost many lives. There will be a rapid rate of infection as there are no counter measures in place to slow down the virus. Many people get sick simultaneously. This will put a great burden on the NHS and exceed its capacity. This is due to the limited numbers of medical staff, ventilators and PPE.
Not everyone will get the right treatment and they will die. As the infection continues to increase, healthcare workers will start becoming ill themselves. The capacity of healthcare systems falls even further. Horrible decisions will have to be made about who gets to live and who doesn’t.
To prevent such a catastrophe, all of us need to do our best to turn the coronavirus into a slow pandemic. Since there is no vaccine for this virus just yet, we have to engineer our behavior to act like a social vaccine.
What Does a Social Vaccine Mean?
A social vaccine means two things: not getting infected and not infecting others. Trivial as it may sound, the best thing to do is regularly wash your hands with soap. Soap breaks down the aforementioned lipid envelope around the virus. This makes the virus unable to infect your cells.
To wash your hands properly, pretend as if you’ve just cut up some jalapenos and want to put on your contact lenses next!
Secondly, practice social distancing. No hugging and no handshakes! Stay at home if you can. It helps to protect people who absolutely have to go out for society to function. This includes people like doctors, cashiers and police officers. They all depend on you to not get sick.
On a larger scale, there are quarantines. This includes things like travel restrictions or the government’s orders to stay at home. However boring it might be to stay at home, it buys researchers working on vaccines crucial time. So if you are put under quarantine, you should understand why and respect it.
In this day and age, how this pandemic turns out is entirely in our hands. Both literally AND figuratively. So stay at home and regularly wash your hands!
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