There’s a lot of information out there and justifiable anxiety even when looking at the facts. So what is it that we know about this disease, what causes it, where it came from, what we need to be aware of, and what we can do about it?
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is the disease caused by a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The name stands for sudden acute respiratory syndrome, coronavirus 2. The disease, COVID-19, signifies a coronavirus disease that emerged in 2019. You may see other names that were used before the official naming, but these are the names used by the WHO and published by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses in this manuscript. If the name looks familiar, that may be due to SARS and MERS both being coronaviruses that emerged in 2003 and 2012.
Where did this come from and why?
SARS-CoV-2 is believed to have originated in pangolins or bats. Being of non-human animal origin, this was a zoonotic disease. Zoonotic diseases are not uncommon, and arise when a pathogen, such as a virus, that normally exists in an animal population is transmitted to a human. The bigger problem arises when the pathogen is transmissible between humans and goes from being a zoonotic disease to being human disease. Zoonotic diseases such as anthrax, rabies, lyme disease and mosquito-borne illnesses are all familiar to us, but cannot be transmitted between people. Diseases such as the H1N1 and H5N1 influenza strains and SARS and COVID-19 are zoonotic in origin, but then began spreading between humans.
What do I need to know about COVID-19?
The first thing to know is how to kill it or prevent its spread. For this, we need to understand how this type of virus works. SARS-CoV-2 is enveloped; this means it has a membrane envelope surrounding the viral capsid. The details of the viral capsid, internal proteins, and RNA genome aren’t important here, but it is important to understand testing. Here’s what makes the envelope so important; envelopes are easily destroyed with soap!
Time for a quick biochemistry lesson… Envelopes are the outer layer of some viruses and are made up of lipids. Specifically, these are phospholipids, like a cellular membrane, which has proteins sticking out of it that work like a key that matches locks (receptors) on your cells. Fats and oils are made of lipids. Phospholipids are a little more complicated because they are amphiphilic, meaning they have both a hydrophobic and hydrophilic portion. Luckily, dissolving them still goes through the same process. Add a detergent, time, and agitation, and viola! You’ve destroyed the membrane. Remember how the viral membrane contains the proteins (keys) that tell your cells to let the virus in? No viral membrane means no infection. You’ll still be able to detect parts of the virus, like the RNA, but it’s dead, aka, noninfectious.
What can we do about it?
We’ve already talked about why soap is so effective, but other cleaners (not antibiotics!) are also helpful. Bleach will also disrupt the membrane, which is why it makes your skin feel slippery. Alcohol will also destroy it if applied in a proper concentration, usually 60-70%; too much and you’ll preserve many pathogens instead of killing them or it’ll just evaporate before it can work. But killing the particles is what you do if they are present. Whenever possible, the better thing to do is to avoid coming in contact. This can be done through self-quarantine, social distancing, avoiding public spaces, practicing good hygiene, and doing your part to protect both yourself and everyone you cannot avoid interacting with.
Testing, method of infection, treatments are also very important, but we’re just scratching the surface of part one here.
Stay home, stay safe, and trust science.