Everything You Need to Know about Covid-19
With the novel outbreak of the coronavirus, fear and misinformation were spread across the Internet. The following is my attempt to share verified and supported information to dissipate the fear and help us overcome the chaos. Please use all information and advice found on this website to critically assess the scientific knowledge and to shape your own perspective on the current, global pandemic. I do not provide medical advice - please kindly consult with your physician regarding your health and changes to your diet. You can consult the original research once you click on the highlighted text.
March 27th 2020. To say it has been a tumultuous month is an understatement of the century. When the first rumors of a mysterious flu-related deaths surfaced in January 2020, the world was most most certainly not expecting that we will soon be dealing with a worldwide pandemic. Certainly, in February of 2020, the first memes emerged on the Internet and seemed to amuse thousands until the devastating disease migrated to all the edges of the world, notably Italy and United States. On March 11th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 infectious disease a global pandemic. And then...toilet paper vanished off the shelves.
Now, what did really happen? What is a coronavirus? How does it transmit and how do people succumb to the infection? My name is Paulina Petrova and I am recent graduate from the University of Toronto with a Double Major in Health/Disease and Molecular Genetics. I am hoping that I can clarify the information circulating around the Internet and that you will share pieces of valuable information in this article. Information is our biggest defense mechanism that we have at the moment - it can truly save lives.
What is the coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses causing severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The one strain we have previously faced is the SARS outbreak in 2002. The novel SARS-CoV-2 virus causing the Covid-19 infectious disease spreads at an unprecedented rate. While both outbreaks seem to be zoonotic diseases, meaning transmitted from animals to humans, the origin of the current strain remains a mystery. Could it have been another mammal that was the intermediate vector for the virus? Both SARS and Covid-19 originally originated in China and from the organism of a bat. SARS is considered more deadly than Covid-19 as WHO and the authorities took three months before reacting, in addition to the two additional months of research to research and understand the genetic material of the virus. The genetic material and sequences are unique to each strain and allow the virus to replicate once inside a living organism. While Covid-19 is not nearly as lethal, we are now convinced that the disease we are currently facing spreads much faster. In reality, it only took two months for the total cases to exceed those from the SARS outbreak back in 2002. In the span of three months, Covid-19 has made five times more victims than the SARS outbreak in 2002. This is cause for concern.
So what makes this strain of coronavirus so proliferative?
Coronavirus literally means "crown" virus. In the simplest way, the covid-19 virus is a shell with a crown carrying its RNA (genetic material) around. Did you notice these spikes covering the surface of the covid-19? Of course you cannot see them, but while they are invisible, these structures are what makes the virus incredibly pervasive. These spikes are actually the "key" to a very specific "lock" on the surface of our own, epithelial cells. Yes, we are an Empire State Building build out of all types of cells, as my 9th grade Science teacher liked to describe. In our lungs, we have tiny structures called alveoli. In these tiny bubbles, there are capillaries through which blood runs and exchanges the oxygen we breathe in our lungs for the carbon dioxide collected from our organs and the rest of the body. This is how respiration simply is. Now, the alveoli are coated by a layer of flat, epithelial cells that play a protective role as well as contributing to the structure of these alveoli. Phew, so far so good? On the surface of these epithelial cells is the "lock" I was writing about earlier - the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2. The ACE2 receptor has a role in regulating blood pressure. In our current situation, the spike "key" structures, the S protein, are complementary to this receptor on the epithelial cells to 1. attach the viral particle to the cell 2. open up the cell and release its genetic information. While the S protein resembles the spiky structures of the SARS strain, they do differ in several amino acids and could potentially explain why the Covid-19 virus spreads so drastically. If the human body is the house, the Covid-19 has they key to the epithelial cells in our lungs, spleen and even intestines.
Once inside the cell, the Covid-19's RNA is subject to being replicated and new viruses are assembled. The cell does not recognize this foreign RNA as dangerous - it only serves the purpose of a virus mass producing factory. Eventually, the number of copies of the virus overwhelm the cell. The cell then commits programmed-cell death and it lyses. The novel copies of the virus are free to float around and infect neighbouring epithelial cells.
What are then the physical symptoms of the Covid-19 disease?
Well, actually, you don't need to be symptomatic to spread the disease. On average, it could take 5-14 days until someone even shows symptoms. There was even a case of a patient infected showing symptoms 37 days after being originally infected! In its dormant phase, the virus is infecting epithelial cells and building an army. Many otherwise healthy individuals do not show any symptoms at this stage. However, if the virus makes too many copies of itself and the immune system, our protectors, react early on, we might start feeling:
- tingling/aching throat
- dry cough
- shortness of breath
- body aches
- diarrhea (in some cases)
Some serious symptoms encompass:
- viral pneumonia
- severe acute respiratory syndrome
- kidney failure
So then why do some people develop serious symptoms and become extremely ill?
At first, scientists and health care practitioners believed that the senior population with prior medical conditions and immunocompromised individuals were the most vulnerable to this novel threat. However, as new evidence and numbers come to light, we begin to realize that NO ONE is protected from the virus. It's a novel pathogen against which the body has not had a chance to develop antibodies. These antibodies are the entities that target, isolate and contribute to the destruction of these pathogens in the body. Certainly, someone who smokes or who has already an underlying condition might be more vulnerable due to a sensitive respiratory system. However, the virus cannot distinguish healthier lungs from, well, the not so healthy ones. It need to make copies of itself. And it will not stop, even after the body has become terminally ill, in some cases.
How come some people succumb so rapidly to the Covid-19 disease?
In some cases, the body's natural defense mechanism, the immune system, reacts quite intensely to the viral spread. Mainly, it is the neutrophils (first line of defense) and the T-cells that aggressively attempt to eliminate the virus from the alveoli. In this attempt to remove the threat, these cells begin to actually attack the healthy, epithelial lung cells. A process of self-destruction begins as the cells in the body can only sense signals known as chemokines. They cannot see or hear. Meanwhile, the virus has damaged sufficiently this protective layer of epithelial cells for opportunistic bacteria to start growing profusely. In reality, we already have bacteria in our body, even more bacterial cells than actual human cells. However, once a bacteria enters a compartment in their body where they are not supposed to, it can cause a severe infection that can easily spread to the entire body - known as sepsis. And that's exactly what happens in this case. Bacteria from the "battlefield" escape into the bloodstream where more immune cells engage to eliminate the bacteria. This causes clots to form and the bacteria keeps spreading to vital organs, including the kidneys and even the heart. Ultimately, there is so much damage to the lung that it cannot fulfill its role and to body then necessitates artificial breathing to receive oxygen. The immune system is overwhelmed and the organs fall into septic shock - they start shutting down. The virus might have been dealt with to some extent - but it is the domino cascade that it sparked at the very beginning leads the body to its demise.
How is the coronavirus transmitted then?
Simply through direct person-to-person contact. More precisely, the virus transmits through the respiratory droplets when someone coughs and sneezes. Even if you cannot see them, these droplets are in the air and might carry sufficient amount of the virus to infect anyone that comes in contact with them. The worst part is that there is not sufficient research yet to determine the exact period of time a virus can survive on a surface.
As of March 26th 2020, the latest study supports that the coronavirus can survive on surfaces for long periods of time. In fact, traces of coronavirus were found on a cruise ship 17 days after the passengers went home!
The virus might even been airborne as new evidence comes to light.
Hence, the next sections of the article address why and how we can actually prevent the spreading of the Covid-19 infectious disease.
Tell us then, what can we do to prevent this disease from making more victims?
Well, the very first thing you hear everywhere is, of course WASH YOUR HANDS. Why is washing your hands THE ONLY "cure" for the Covid-19 disease? On average, we touch our face 23 times per hour. That is, we touch our face 552 times a day and that would even be an understatement. Thus, we give this virus a direct trip to the main entry points - mouth, nose and eyes, 552 times a day without even realizing it. I challenge you to go outside and avoid touching surfaces and then your face. It seems almost like a torture.
Please, adopt a proper hygiene etiquette and play your favourite part of your favourite song in your head (or out loud!). Lather that soap, use hot water and rub the palms, the backhands and the cuticles together!
If you do not have access to soap and hot water, always carry with you a travel size hand sanitizer.
How come washing your hands ACTUALLY helps and might be the ONLY "CURE" currently? The Covid-19 has a very special LIPID aka fat soluble membrane that carries that precious DNA and protects it so it can replicate in our epithelial cells. What is soap? A fat-based substance. And like dissolves like. Not only you are washing quite literally the virus away, but you get to inactivate it right before it gets into your body.
Then, how does a 70% alcohol-based hand sanitizer help? The alcohol kills bacteria, but it also renders the virus' protective shell very unstable. Once again, that is one of the few ways you can actually inactivate the virus and PREVENT it from infecting you and others.
I want to highlight the importance of using ethanol and bleach-based disinfectants on surfaces ONLY and not to use them as treatment. It does sound silly, but some have attempted to disinfect themselves with such harsh reagents and they ended up actually burning their soft tissues. Please be careful and always consult trusted sources and your physician before attempting anything with an off-label indication.
In my next article, I will discuss the importance of working together to instill the ONLY SOCIAL VACCINE we currently have - self-isolation and social distancing. We are currently all in the same boat, but some more than others express their discomfort in this situation. It is quite literally a matter of life and death.
It is now that the fate of this pandemic is decided and we are the ones who have the control. Will we be dealing with a slow or fast growing pandemic? Are we close to "flattening the curve"? Only time will tell...
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Stay safe and strong in these difficult times!