Coronavirus. Just the word strikes fear into our hearts.
“Novel coronavirus” is the proper term for this brand-new virus wreaking havoc on our unprepared world.
But you can also call this nasty villain by its scientific name: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2 for short.
Becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 can trigger a potentially deadly respiratory disease called Covid-19, an illness which presents with three main acute symptoms: fever, a deep, dry cough and a shortness of breath which can become quickly life-threatening. Other symptoms can mimic a cold or the flu.
Covid-19 seems to strike the elderly and immunocompromised the hardest, along with any of us with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung disease. But the young shouldn’t take anything for granted — there have been numerous deaths among people aged 20 to 50, as well as a very few among children.
Covid-19 can also present with mild symptoms very similar to a typical cold or flu — or no symptoms at all, which makes controlling the spread of the virus causing Covid-19 very difficult.
All viruses are like zombies — they try to take over people’s bodies — but they aren’t really alive. Outside the host’s body they are dormant, surviving without living. Once touched or inhaled and brought inside, their ancient machinery springs into action, using proteins to latch onto and invade human cells.
There they set up shop, producing millions of copies of themselves and causing those cells to rupture. Like the famous scene from the movie “Alien,” the viral offspring shoot out into the bloodstream, with the goal of invading more and more cells.
As they multiply, humans began to spit them out into the universe with each exhalation, making us contagious days before we begin to cough, sneeze or have diarrhea — all symptoms the virus creates to ensure it can leap from human to human, thus ensuring its survival.
This “virus zombie invasion” comes in all sort of shapes, sizes and genetic strategies. All coronaviruses are covered with pointy spires of protein, giving them the appearance of having a crown or “corona” — hence the name. Coronaviruses use these spikes to latch onto and pierce our cells.
Coronaviruses are part of the RNA brigade of viruses, which are much less stable than their DNA-based comrades. Why is that important? Because instability leads to mistakes in copying genetic code.
That leads to mutations — thousands, millions, billions of mutations. Sooner or later, one mutation hits pay dirt and allows the virus to cross the great divide between different species. A few million/billion/trillion more mistakes creates another mutation that allows that virus to spread easily. Now the virus is both in its new host and it is contagious.
It’s that type of mutation which gives humanity viruses like SARS-CoV-2.