COVID-19, or Coronavirus as the memes prefer to call it, has spread fast. People are scared, and what is going on exactly is unclear. Of course most of us know to stay calm, make sure hygiene is perfect, and avoid others, but what to do isn’t the same without why. We are all preparing for isolation now, or already in it, and so I’ve decided to write a little explanation.

First, a bit about “germs”. There are a few types of germs, being fungi, bacteria, and viruses. They are all different, and how you fight them is different. COVID-19 is a virus, and viruses are packages with genetic information inside (not cells, and they aren’t alive so you can’t kill them, but you can destroy them). They don’t make any energy (nor do they need it), they cannot reproduce on their own, and they are everywhere.

Think of them like specialized robot spies. All cells have proteins on the outsides, which do things like send signals and let nutrients in, and viruses have their own proteins which fit some of those cell-proteins perfectly, like a jigsaw. They get inside the cell, then use the cell’s machinery to copy its genetic code and make more of itself. The cell dies once the virus army leaves to find more cells to duplicate in. The catch is that they can only get inside cells that have the protein they can latch on to, so they are very specialised.

There is at least one virus for every species of bacteria, fungi, and animal. The funny thing is it only takes one viral particle of the right “shape” to infect someone with any virus, because after one cell it could make hundreds more. By the time your immune system notices there are intruders and gives you symptoms like a cough or a fever to get those intruders out, there could be thousands running about and they’ve probably spread to someone else without you knowing you were sick.

COVID-19 is part of a specific group of similar viruses, called coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are named because they look like blobs with haloes, and those haloes are made of those jigsaw-proteins. Many animals have a coronavirus or two (even beluga whales have one). The symptoms they cause vary, from the common cold in bats and humans (indistinguishable from other common causes of a cold, like rhinoviruses which look different under microscopes but cause the same symptoms), to pigs with diarrhoea, to severe lung problems. There are subtypes of coronaviruses too. COVID-19 is a betacoronavirus, and that group includes most of the other human ones.

Betacoronaviruses are a diverse group symptoms-wise, and members range from cold-causing HCoV-NL63 to SARS and MERS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, which both have had their own serious outbreaks). These are all spread by aerosol – droplets of water and mucus from an infected lung. COVID-19’s real name is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome 2, which isn’t very inventive, but is descriptive of what it does and how closely-related it is to the original SARS. We know a lot about its genetics, but we are finding out a lot more – for example it has a special instruction the other betacoronaviruses don’t have called a polybasic cleavage site, which could explain why it’s so infectious. It can attach to a few proteins, one on the surface of blood cells involved in malaria, called basigin. The main one it uses is the same as the original SARS, a protein involved in blood pressure regulation (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2, for you nerds). Both SARS and SARS-2 probably came from the bat betacoronavirus.

If you are wondering how a virus can “jump” between species when it’s specific, the answer is bad spelling. When you copy out an important document, you are probably being very careful and spell-checking, right? Cells from all forms of life have genetic codes, and those have to be copied before the cell can divide, and they copy their codes out pretty carefully (some are better spellers than others though).

Viruses also have a genetic code, but they are not careful. They go fast instead, making lots of copies before your immune cells realise that you’ve been invaded and shut down the operation (there’s even a part of your immune system that targets virus-invaded cells to stop the virus leaving). Because of this, they make mistakes, a lot of them too, and when those spelling mistakes and extra words and forgotten sentences are in one of the outside proteins, it changes the shape they can fit. Imagine if bat lungs had a protein that was a hexagon shape, and humans had one that was an octagon.

A few mistakes to change the shape, and then accidentally finding itself in a human lung (where normally it wouldn’t be able to do anything, and wouldn’t make anyone sick, because it normally is the wrong shape), and suddenly it can infect a new species.

So, how can we use that information to combat COVID-19?

Practice sneeze & cough hygiene

  • If you cough or sneeze into a hand, you can transfer the droplets onto your hand, which then will stick to anything you touch, and could end up near someone’s mouth or nose, where it will go to their lungs.
  • Instead, cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, because those won’t touch things other people use.
  • This is a good idea at any time, even if it’s just a cold!
  • You don’t need to use a face mask unless you have the virus, because the mask will stop droplets getting out. Water droplets are everywhere (humidity anyone?) but they can’t go as far as you think, so if you are trying not to get the virus, do the next step instead.

Wash your hands

  • If someone else has put droplets onto a surface, when you touch that surface the virus will go on your skin. From there, if you touch your face or food, the virus has an easy route to your lungs.
  • Soap can disable the virus and wash it away from your skin, so wash with soap and water for twenty seconds. Some people sing happy birthday, I prefer the chorus of either Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” or Backstreet Boy’s “I Want It That Way” myself and there are more you can find online!
  • No running water? Sanitiser! But soap and water is more effective.
  • This is another one to do during flu season too.

Clean surfaces

  • In surfaces have the virus on them, if you wipe the virus off first, then anyone who touches it is safe.
  • Bleach and alcohol both can destroy viruses (and basically anything alive too). Make a solution with water and wipe down surfaces you touch a lot with it – think door handles, chairs, the remote control, benches, light switches, the flush on the toilet, your phone…

Keep away from others

  • Some people won’t ever get symptoms because the virus never makes enough copies to warrant the whole Being Sick immune reaction (and this is common in young people like us). And everyone else will be infectious before they get symptoms.
  • Some people can’t afford to get sick because they are at-risk. This includes people over 70, people with conditions like asthma or diabetes, and people who have had major surgeries or are otherwise immunocompromised (in other words, their immune system is busy or recovering from something). These people are at risk of getting severe symptoms and could die.
  • The solution, regardless if you are at-risk or if you might pass it on to someone else who is at-risk, is to stay home. Stay away from people physically, 2 metres away is safe! Further is better, but if you are living with others, close contact is okay. Just be careful if you have anyone at-risk at home and might have come in contact with the virus.
  • 14 days covers the average time it takes from virus arriving in someone’s body to symptoms first showing. As I said earlier, in that time you are still infectious, so the idea of a 14 day quarantine is that by the time it’s over, you’ll either have been sick (symptoms or not) and it’s passed, or you never had it. Either way, you know you can’t have spread it to anyone, which is a good thing!
  • And this goes for any illness, contagious or not: STAY HOME IF YOU ARE UNWELL!!! Your body recovers faster if it is resting anyway!
  • Meanwhile, learn a skill, keep up with school, talk to friends over the internet/phone/text/morse code with your bedroom light at night, and look after yourself and your friends and family. You know the science behind being safe, so keep it up and we can make this curve short and flat.

Take care in there guys!

Additional readings:

Mackenzie is Tearaway’s resident evil Aspie queen. Mwahaha! She’s dead set on becoming a geneticist, but she’s interested in other things too. Like Sims, cats, owls, Sims, books, music, Sims, Ancient Roman life, Latin, Sims…