In light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be more questionable information on the internet than ever. From headlines telling us not to worry because it’s ‘just the flu’ to news outlets telling us that the virus was deliberately manufactured by Chinese scientists to achieve world domination. It’s a tough job for anyone to cut through the bullshit to get to the truth, so here’s a basic guide for Coronavirus using just the facts.
What is a virus?
A virus is a non-living entity. It is essentially a strand of genomic data called RNA, similar to the DNA found in our own cells, wrapped in a protein case. The best way to think of it is as a purple Quality Street, with the chocolate around the outside being the protein case and the hazelnut in the center being the RNA. The hazelnut contains all of the information that allows the cell to replicate itself properly, much like the nucleus of a human cell. The chocolate coating provides structure for the entity as a whole. Coronaviruses have the same basic structure as other viruses, but there are some differences.
Coronaviruses are special because they have the largest amount of RNA compared to any other virus, they are also the most complex. In other words, the Coronavirus hazelnut is HUGE with a really thin layer of chocolate covering it. Coronaviruses are really common in animals such as bats, cats, porcupines and turkeys, so how is a virus common in other animals able to infect humans? (spoilers: it’s not the work of evil scientists)
Unlike the DNA in our own cells, the RNA present in viruses is much more unstable. This instability means that every so often a base (DNA and RNA contain bases A, T, C and G which make up our genetic information) can randomly be added, subtracted or changed. This alteration of a base can mean that the Glycoproteins on the surface of the protein envelope can change shape.
The Glycoproteins on the external surface of the virus act in the same way that a key acts to a lock. The virus’ Glycoprotein ‘key’ connects to an animal cells ‘lock’ in order to allow the virus entry into the cell. If these keys change shape via a random base alteration, the keys can then open different locks that match the new shape of the key. In the case of COVID-19, its keys were changed from unlocking bat cells to unlocking human cells, allowing the virus to start infecting humans.
So why is COVID-19 so bad?
Firstly, it has a reasonably high rate of replication, about the same as SARS and higher than Ebola, meaning the virus can travel faster from person to person and secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, you can transmit COVID-19 to other people even before you get symptoms of it. Unlike SARS which, although was more deadly, was not able to spread from person to person until the first person started to get symptoms and knew they had it, COVID-19 can spread from you to someone else even before your first dry cough or feverish night. This is the reason that total lockdowns as seen in China and Italy are completely necessary to curb the spread of the virus and to save the lives of society’s most vulnerable.
A global pandemic can be a terrifying time to live through for some, whether that be due to a detriment in mental health through quarantine and isolation, or a detriment in physical health due to being elderly or immunocompromised. However, with enough caution and safeguards put in place to protect others and ourselves combined with a population that understands the dangers and causes of such a virus, it is a pandemic that us and our loved ones will be able to see the end of.
Words by Olly Singleton