What is a coronavirus anyway?

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The news: There is a new type of coronavirus virus that has originated in the Wuhan province in China. It is suspected that it originated in bats or snakes, and has now gained the ability to jump into humans. A number of people have been hospitalised, and some have died.

What is a virus? Viruses are  teeny tiny agents that infect cells in plants and animals. They are parasites, so need to infect another cell in order to multiply and stay alive. They really, really want to stay alive, and so will go to any lengths to ensure that they trick unsuspecting organisms to take them in and then can wreak havoc in those cells. When they have killed most of what they can in one organism, they try to find another host to infect, in order to stay alive. If they don’t, after some period of time, they will die in the infected host. Why? Well, deadly as they are, they actually do not themselves have the machinery that allows them to multiply. They need to find that in the host they infect, and they will do whatever they can to survive.

What do they look like? All viruses are microscopic, or very very small, and consist of DNA or RNA, and an outer shell.

Some viruses we know very well: You have definitely been infected by rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. Or sometimes, you will have a high fever with no other symptoms and the doctor will visit and say that it looks like a virus, and tell you to rest and you will be better in 3 to 5 days. This is because unless it jumps from your body to someone else’s, it will die out in your body. That’s why you need to cover your mouth when sneezing, and wash your hands before touching other things – to prevent the virus from leaping from you to whoever else is around you! And your body has seen similar viruses before so it will call on its immune army to fight this variant.

Got it! What’s this in the news about a coronavirus? In general, there are different viruses that are active in plants and in animals. Even within animals, it is rare for viruses to gain the ability to jump across species. When they do, they can be pretty deadly as the species of the new host will never have seen this virus or anything like it before, so it might not be able to launch a quick and efficient immune attack on it.

A coronavirus

A coronavirus is one that is common in animals and birds, but rare in humans. In humans, it generally affects the human respiratory system. Its symptoms are like that of the common cold, with different levels of severity, depending on the immunity of the person it has infected.

Why are we talking about this one from China now? It is a virus that originated in bats or snakes and has now adapted to infecting humans. It can spread from human to human now.

What are the symptoms? People are getting symptoms like those with a very bad flu.

Sounds crazy! How are we going to deal with it? Well, the people who are suspected of being infected with this coronavirus are being ‘quarantined’, or being kept separate from other people until it is certain that they are alright, or until their body fluids are tested and it is ensured that they do not have the coronavirus. In addition, people are spreading the word, and telling others to be vigilant, to go visit the doctor if they are not feeling good, and to definitely avoid travelling when they aren’t well. There aren’t that many people who have a confirmed infection by this coronavirus.

Should you panic? No! We don’t yet know how strong it is. Entire cities in China have been placed under ‘lockdown’, with public areas such as cinemas and malls being closed, and transportation facilities such as airplanes and trains being shut down. Authorities in other countries are monitoring the potential development of symptoms in those who have recently travelled to China.


Written by: Sunaina Murthy. Sunaina is a biotechnologist, greedy reader, and amateur photographer.

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