The novel coronavirus and its disease (COVID-19) was first identified in Wuhan, a municipality the size of New York City or London 600 miles up the Yangtze River and the People’s Republic of China’s largest inland water port. It is thought to have originated from bats and mutated to infect humans, however not much is known about this virus.
As of this writing, the virus has infected around 80,000 individuals and killed around 3,000 in China. This is actually a relatively low mortality rate, with already weakened immune systems being the most vulnerable. The number of new cases in China has thankfully dropped to its lowest daily amount since January. Unfortunately, this virus has spread to 60 or more countries and is rapidly spreading in South Korea, Italy and Iran.
COVID-19 is an epidemic. While its mortality rate is relatively low, its basic virus reproductive rate, called “R naught,” or “R0” by virologists, is relatively high. This and other factors make this virus highly contagious. The World Health Organization has not labelled COVID-19 a pandemic, because the data does not support this moniker. So far, the spread has not been great enough in scope or numbers globally for this designation.
A coronavirus is so named because it appears like a crown with spike points on it in imagery. This particular coronavirus is called “novel” because it is thought to transmit from a symptomless human to another human. This is unusual and not understood. The official name for this virus is SARS-CoV-2, for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2. The genome, which is the “blueprint” for an organism to replicate, is 80% similar to the SARS coronavirus that spread in 2002-2003, killing nearly 800 persons.
The genome of SARS-CoV-2 is different than most organisms. Most organisms have double stranded DNA for a genome. Think of it as two shoelaces twisted together from Livermore to San Francisco. On a genome single-strand are four different molecular possibilities for a nucleobase. A nucleobase is connected to a five-carbon sugar, becoming a nucleoside, which is connected to a phosphate, which makes it a nucleotide. It is the phosphate that links nucleotides together on a strand. The human genome is a double-stranded DNA with three billion nucleobases per strand. If you think this is complicated, which it is, consider the wheat plant, which has 17 billion nucleobases per strand, the next time you take a bite of bread. SARS-CoV-2 genome has around 30,000 nucleobases. Its genome is a single-strand, “positive sense” RNA, not DNA. The central dogma of biology is that from DNA comes a form of RNA and RNA goes on to make proteins (being simple here). The genome of SARS-CoV-2 is able to make proteins directly, unlike the DNA or most RNA genomes of other organisms.
The structure of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 has been determined by an advanced technology. The SARS-CoV-2 is so small it can only be “seen” using beams of electrons, for it is smaller than a single wavelength of the shortest visible light we are able to see – violet. There now is a model structure to base a design of an antigen for a vaccine on, or to come up with a drug or cocktail of drugs to inhibit this virus.
In the meantime, please do this: Wash your hands. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. It is unlikely that this virus can survive such an action for long. It appears that China is getting some control on this virus. So can we!