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What is a Coronavirus anyway?


What is a Coronavirus anyway?

The Coronavirus demystified: microbiologist and science communicator, Dr Martin Khechara, Associate Professor for Engagement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) at the University of Wolverhampton, considers the onset and spread of new viruses in light of the latest infection spreading across the globe.

A new virus has emerged from the Far East.

The Coronavirus has emerged from the wet markets of China, most probably passed to a human from a bat and is now spreading around the globe. At the time of writing this article the British government has given the advice to all UK nationals to leave China where the numbers of infections are soaring daily. Now it is even in England, and has even put Wolverhampton on the map (albeit on a cruise ship in Japan).

Fortunately the mortality rate for this virus is relatively low with deaths expected to be mostly in the young and old and those with existing conditions that may make them more ill if infected.

Still we can see how something like this is a definite worry and shows how a disease can spread so rapidly around the world. The thing is, we, the public, just don’t know enough about what’s going on when scientists in the UK and around the world are working together to crack the genetic code of the virus and create new vaccines at break neck speed.

What I want to do here is cover the basics. So how do diseases like this emerge and what is a Coronavirus anyway? How does it spread and what does it do? Now I am not a Coronavirus expert but I am a microbiologist so I know a thing or two about how disease spreads and as a science communicator I am particularly good at explaining things in an accessible way. So I thought I would have a go at answering these questions in a way we can all understand and then we can perhaps know a bit more about one of our newest microscopic emerging enemies. 

So diseases have been given to us by animals ever since we started living in towns and raising animals where we lived in close proximity with them. In actual terms this could be called the ‘crowd transition’ and allowed viruses such as measles to be transferred to humans from cattle at least 7000 years ago.

As society developed and we began to trade with other towns and cities and even far off countries, this allowed diseases to spread further and faster particularly after wars or down trade routes like the Silk Road. This is called the ‘trade transition’ and is responsible for the spread of diseases like plague causing the so called Black Death which decimated populations across Europe.

Later in history we have a period of exploration and colonisation of islands and the new world. In this third transition we took our diseases with us to great unspoilt places across the globe leaving an indelible mark on the people and places we visited.

Really, right now, we are in a fourth transition that is really global urbanisation. We now often live in densely populated communities where disease can spread easily. We invade environments where we have never been before in the constant search for resources -exposing ourselves to new potential infections. In some places there are cultural practices that can expose us to new diseases. This includes the so called wet markets of China where the sale of live exotic animals for food is common practice and disease can spread from these animals to humans.

This exactly is how health authorities think this new Coronavirus came from bats to us. Of course this has happened before with one of these viruses when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) Coronavirus emerged from just such a place to spread around the globe in 2002 and 2003. Again this may have come from bats to humans via a mammal called a Civet cat that is used for exotic food. Only approximately 8500 people were infected, Unfortunately, it caused 808 deaths worldwide meaning pound for pound the SARS virus killed more people it infected than the current one we are contending with now - at least so far.

Now knowledge dispels fear I suppose so to address that, what is a Coronavirus anyway?

Well like all viruses a Coronavirus is a pirate of the natural world and hijacks human cells and once inside, takes over turning it into a virus making factory. The virus is medium sized at 100 – 160 nanometres and can come in a variety of shapes. They are also around us all the time with as much as 10% of what we see as common colds being caused by Coronaviruses and to be honest most people have been infected by one at some point in their life.

The surface of the virus itself is decorated with biological structures that often give it the appearance of a crown when we look at it under the electron microscope so it gets the name corona as it is Latin for crown. Unlike most of our cells viruses do not always have DNA and they do not always have the other information carrying chemical compound produced from DNA in our cells, RNA. They tend to have one or the other but never both! This virus has just RNA inside and this helps to make all the building blocks of new viruses that are released to infect other cells once assembled. The virus only infects cells in the top part of the airways of the body and it kills them leading usually to fairly unpleasant nasal discharges and tiredness that lasts about a week. So usually it’s just like a cold but perhaps the new virus has different properties that make it worse for those infected.

So is this the end of human kind? Well, personally I think no to be honest. So far the infection can be fairly mild in healthy people but as it seems quite easy to catch, infection rates could increase if not controlled and so the amount of deaths will inevitably increase. It is just a numbers game after all - with more people infected there is more chance of a death. Actually, we still don’t really know enough, we don’t know how it will spread in the West or if spread will be sustained given rigorous control measures we will inevitably have in place.

The question keeping me awake is has it been here much longer than we think? At the moment it all seems like a giant version of that mobile game ‘Plague’ doesn’t it? Keep safe out there everyone.



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