June 2, 2020
November 17, 2019, Wuhan, China: The case of a 55-year-old person suffering from severe breathing-related problems due to mysterious cause emerges. After the first report, each passing day more and more cases with similar medical conditions emerge due to mysterious causes. On December 27, 2019, almost a month and a half since the report of the first case, Dr Zhang Xian, from the Hubei Province Hospital, reports to the Medical Health Officers, that the cause for the mysterious pneumonia-like condition is a specific type of virus. By that time, the number of patients with similar conditions neared 200. But the possibility of knowing the accurate number of patients was far from reality, because, the world was yet to wake up to the deadly nature of this new disease.
Dr Li Wenliyang, the physician who tried to bring about awareness regarding the deadly nature and seriousness of the disease through social media was reprimanded by the Chinese government for ‘spreading rumours’. The irony of his life is that after awakening the world regarding the coronavirus, he succumbs to the same virus within a month. The world was to witness the horror unfolding. Just within a couple of months, the beliefs of the people, their viewpoints about life and everything were to change. Until just about six months ago, the description of this coronavirus was very much limited to somewhere in the microbiology textbooks. Since its emergence, the same virus has to its credit millions of pages written about.
Background of Corona
A virologist of Scottish origin, Dr June Dalziel Almeida, was the first one to discover this virus. The outermost part of the sun called ‘Corona’, which usually is hidden by the brightness of the sun is visible during the total solar eclipse. The electron-microscopic structure of the virus resembles that of the corona of the sun, by which it was named ‘coronavirus’. It is an RNA virus, which carries a single strand of RNA molecule in it. This single strand contains 29,891 nucleotides which are capable of producing 9,860 amino acids - the building block of proteins. The virus measures around 120 nanometers in diameter. Based on the similarities and variations found in their RNA molecules, they are categorized into Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta type of coronaviruses.
These viruses carry four important proteins in them namely E, M, S and N. Out of these, S, M and E proteins are exclusively found on their outer cover. Protein M plays a significant role in imparting a globular shape to the virus. During the viral replication, protein M, along with S, which facilitates aggregating all the protein particles of the virus shape them into the globular structure. You will find the protein N along with the RNA, which also plays a significant role in its life cycle.
The RNA of these viruses are capable of undergoing constant changes called mutations, and about 40 different varieties of this virus have been found. The coronaviruses are capable of infecting mammals including humans and bats. Their infection can range from simple and common cold-like symptoms to deadly respiratory tract infections, leading to multi-organ failure and ultimately to death.
International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) has named this virus ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Corona Virus-2’ (SARS-CoV-2). The virus responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the present virus has significant genetic similarities and hence this virus is denoted as SARS-CoV-2. The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 ‘COVID – 19’ (coronavirus disease-19).
Mode of disease spreading
The first step in causing disease in humans is the viral entry into human cells. Viral protein S facilitates this critical stage of disease formation. The respiratory tract cells have a protein called ‘ACE-2’ on their outer surface. The interaction of S protein and ACE-2 protein facilitates the entry of virus into the cells.
Wuhan - The emerging financial hub of China had more than 80,000 people who were corona infected leading to the death of 1,800 people within the first 50 days. Scientific studies revealed that the type of virus which caused the infection was a Beta type of coronavirus. By the end of December 2019, China reports the rapid spread of mysterious pneumonia type disease to several people. But the report was very interesting. In the Hunan fish market, along with fishes, other organisms like bats, pythons, dogs, birds, pangolins and a variety of other creatures were being sold. By January 15, the Chinese Health Organization reports this mysterious disease as viral pneumonia. The detailed genetic studies revealed that the disease was caused by a novel type of coronavirus. Upon interaction with some of the patients, it was learnt that they at some point during the onset of the outbreak, had visited the Hunan fish market. The conclusion drawn from this was, the viruses found in the wild animals were responsible for the disease and also the viruses had the unique capacity of zoonotic infection. But there was a twist. A good number of patients also reported that they never had visited the fish market during the disease episode, which made the doctors conclude the ability of a human to human transmission of viruses. Close interactions with the infected people, touch, cough, sneeze and the microscopic droplets caused by
sneezing were responsible for the spread of this disease. The way COVID-19 has spread across the globe in such a short duration has reinforced this fact.
Once the virus comes in contact with the outer surface proteins of our cells, the RNA can easily enter the cells. But this process involves multiple intermediate steps and several proteins. Once the viral RNA is inside the host cell, it will be ready to produce proteins that are required to keep itself alive, help in their multiplication and cause the disease. Once our body senses the presence of the viral particles, it starts to respond to the foreign particles. This activates the production of antibodies that are very specific to the viruses. Some of the general characteristics of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, intense weakness, body ache and throat pain. The signs will be very mild in the initial stages. As per the observation by looking into the cases to date, about 20% of people show intense signs of infection. Elderly people with decreased immunity, diabetics, people with the habit of smoking, this disease can get very severe. The challenging part of this disease is people with mild symptoms or asymptomatic people can also very well be spreading the disease unknowingly.
Myths and Truths
Throughout history, pandemics have been the breeding grounds for conspiracy theories. The origin of SARS-CoV-2 is no exception to this. There has been a lot of question regarding the novel coronavirus. As per Dr Luke Montagnier, the French Nobel laureate who discovered the AIDS virus, the SARS-CoV-2 is an unnatural virus. However, the scientific community thinks that Dr Montagnier’s arguments are baseless and lack scientific grounds.
The E protein which is seen in the viruses found in bats and that of SARS-CoV-2 shows cent percent homology. Dr Judy Mikovits, who is the former researcher at the National Cancer Institute, with over 40 years of vast research experience in the field of virology states that ‘In case of zoonotic viruses, the chances of 100% homology in key proteins (in this case E protein) is very remote’. This is because, when trans-species transmission takes place, certain key proteins have to change. However, there are numerous gaps in the facts, which hopefully emerge at some point in time or another. China being a communist country, nothing is right about ‘Right to express’ there. Whistleblowers are curbed, people who raise their voices against the truth go mysteriously missing. Currently, China is strongly opposing the probe into the origin of the novel coronavirus. This would have been a good opportunity for them to come clean on the origin of coronavirus rumours. Based on the current situation in the world, concerning the number of COVID – 19 related deaths, rate of infection, there are a lot of doubts about the data China has given out. As per American intelligence, since March 2020, about 8 – 10 million telephone connections have become ‘inactive’. Any guesses...?
In its recent report, the Washington Post had alerted America about the lapses in standards at the Wuhan Institute of Virology about two years ago. But the Government of China and the Director of the Institute had assured that they were stringently following ‘Biosafety Level-4’ standards. The kind of situation America is going through, inefficient in every front to control the spread of the disease, to control the number of deaths, nothing conclusive with respect to treatment for the coronavirus, the President is trying every trick in the book to blame China.
The universally accepted fact among the scientific community as of now is, SARS-CoV-2 is a naturally evolved virus. Prestigious ‘Nature Medicine’ had recently published a research article based on the in-depth study on the RNA, which concludes that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a naturally formed virus by systematic mutations. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is also working on a close relative of the SARS-CoV-2 virus called RaTG13 which affects the bats. This virus is said to be the source of the novel coronavirus.
Currently, no medicine is available which could tackle or destroy the coronavirus. Extensive research work is going on at a great pace. More than 100 types of vaccines are in the pipeline with the hope to control coronavirus. Among these, the forerunner is the one prepared by the scientists of Oxford University. The vaccine is called ‘ChAdOx1 nCoV-19’ and is being put to clinical trials on 1,200 volunteers. Our own Serum Institute of India is partnering in this venture, where the large scale production of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 is being carried out. We human beings are always optimistic. We wholeheartedly wish and hope that this vaccine will effectively control the disease.
The egocentric nature of humans has been shattered by an unseen virus. An ultramicroscopic virus has completely taken over human confidence. Our beliefs, activities have changed drastically. However, this challenging time has brought out the unseen face of humanity in each of us. We have started appreciating the gift of life more than ever before. The front line health workers, doctors, nurses, municipality cleaning workers’ contributions, importance are realized way better than before. During this pandemic, they have worked more than caring for their own lives. To put it in a nutshell, this novel coronavirus has opened up completely new dimensions for us. Without going to malls, without eating out, without alcohol, we are made to believe the fact that we can stay at our own home for such a long time – without much work. Coronavirus has made all these a reality – Which is hard to believe.
1.https://microbenotes.com/structure-and-genome-of-sars-cov-2/ (For Structure)
2.https://cen.acs.org/biological-chemistry/infectious-disease/novel-coronavirus-hits-China/98/web/2020/01 (Viral Entry)
6.https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9 (Formation of new virus)