What is COVID-19? A breakdown of the virus that’s spread across the globe

As research progresses surrounding the novel coronavirus, The Daily Iowan took a deeper look at the virus and how it operates.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has claimed the lives of over 12,000 individuals across the world and now has a case present in all 50 U.S. states.

The virus hadn’t previously been identified in humans, however, in 2020, the virus has proven to have taken the lives of many and upended daily life across the globe in order to prevent its spread.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website , COVID-19 stems from coronaviruses (CoV) of a large family of viruses. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that are common in humans and various animals that can include camels, cattle, and bats, making them zoonotic.

The virus named ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,’ otherwise known as SARS-CoV-2, is genetically related to the SARS outbreak in 2003. This viral respiratory illness spread to nearly 24 countries globally in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia, according to the CDC.  This outbreak resulted in 8,098 infected persons worldwide, and 774 deaths in 2003.

Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes that appear on the surface when viewed under an electron microscope — stemming from the latin word ‘corona’ meaning crown or halo.

There are four main subgroupings for coronaviruses: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta.

Common human coronaviruses include:

  • 229E (alpha coronavirus)
  • NL63 (alpha coronavirus)
  • OC43 (beta coronavirus)
  • HKU1 (beta coronavirus)
  • MERS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS)
  • SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS)
  • SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19)

How it spreads

According to a NewYork Times visualization, the virus is enveloped in a bubble of oily lipid molecules that fall apart on contact with soap.

When sick patients began exhibiting symptoms of respiratory illness in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China back in December 2019, the new virus began to spread globally. The traces of the virus are believed to have begun in a live animal market.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus infects its patients, COVID-19 becomes the disease that can last for days to weeks for some. The novel respiratory disease poses a serious risk to public health.

COVID-19 is primarily spread person-to-person through respiratory droplets formed from a cough or sneeze of an infected person. Transmission occurs when the cough or sneeze goes directly into or near the person’s nose or mouth. Inhaling the droplets can pose effects such

According to the CDC, about six feet or closer to a person would be enough room for one to contract the virus. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the respiratory droplets could land and infect the person nearby.

University of Iowa Professor of Microbiology and Immunology Stanley Perlman said the droplets are pretty visible when someone sneezes into their hand or on a hard surface.

“[The droplets] fall pretty quickly to the ground,” Perlman said.

Perlman said the active virus could hold on to objects or other surfaces for days, however, research is still unclear for the estimated lifespan of the virus.

The body’s ‘race’ against the virus

When the virus enters the body, Perlman described the process of infection as “a race” between the body trying to get rid of the virus and the virus searching for a cell to infect. The virus infects the cell by fusing its own membrane with the membrane of the cell. Once inside the cell, the coronavirus will release its own viral RNA.

“As soon as it finds a cell and can infect, it starts making more virus and then your body still tries to get rid of it, but then it’s a race — and depending on how that race turns out, you either get sick or you don’t get anything,” Perlman said. “You can get a little sick, if [the virus] stays around your nose, and you get really sick if it goes down to your chest and causes pneumonia.”

The virus’ genome is less than 30,000 genetic ‘letters’ long, according to the New York Times visualization. The infected cell will then read the RNA and begin to make new proteins. New copies are created as the infection progresses.

According to the CDC, people are thought to be most contagious when they are symptomatic, although spread is still possible before those infected show symptoms.

Each infected cell can release millions of copies of the virus before the cell finally breaks down and dies. The viruses may infect nearby cells, or end up in droplets that escape the lungs.

There are many ways an individual can be affected with COVID-19, however, the CDC believes the spread is mainly a “community spread,” meaning people are infected  , with some not aware of how they were infected.

Who’s most at risk?

The CDC says that older adults and those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes, are more at risk for contracting the COVID-19 disease.

“This is true for all these coronavirus infections, whether it be SARS or MERS, people who are 65 years or older do much worse,” Perlman said. “Some of them have other problems like diabetes or heart disease, but the mortality is much higher. This is true for all these diseases — as you get older you do worse.”

Perlman said it’s unclear as to why the older adult population tends to do worse, but recognized that the body may have developed conditions that the younger population would not have.

“Diseases like flu — children under the age of one are considered a high-risk group. But that’s not true here, as far as we know yet,” Perlman said.

According to the CDC, adults make up the most known cases to date, but children can still contract the virus. The respiratory symptoms are similar in both adults and children, but children tend to have very mild symptoms. However,  .

Perlman said researchers currently don’t have much information on what life looks like for those who are recovering from COVID-19.

“Based on other diseases, if you’re 75 years old, and you have severe pneumonia and you’re in the hospital, it’s gonna take you a long time to recover whether you had SARS-CoV-2 infection or something else,” Perlman said.  “You’re just going to be sick for a while. Your lungs don’t heal that quickly.”