The science behind COVID-19


Photo courtesy of CDC

Patient zero of the novel coronavirus was identified on Nov. 17, 2019, in Wuhan, China. The COVID-19 pandemic had already begun its silent, invisible spread. 

Coronaviruses get their name from their crown-like structure and are part of a large family of RNA viruses that infect mammals and birds. COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, specifically, is a new or novel, respiratory virus that causes fever and respiratory symptoms. 

The official name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 which is a beta coronavirus that comes from bats just as the SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV did. The first patients of the virus had a link to the wet markets in China with probable animal-to-human transfer. However, over time, fewer and fewer patients had connections to the seafood and live animal market, displaying transfers of the virus from human-to-human.

The virus was previously referred to as novel coronavirus, with “novel” as the simple designation that this is a new virus. The average person has the built-up immunity to fight different strains of the flu as people have had it before, whereas COVID-19 is new and bodies do not have any immunity to it. 

Another important difference is the contagiousness. Disease experts say that the virus can infect approximately two to three people for one person infected, roughly double the infection rate of the flu, which is 1.3 people. The risk presented is that people who contract the virus may not show symptoms for up to two weeks but yet, can be contagious. However, with the flu, people are most contagious in the three to four days after the flu symptoms begin. 

“Once a patient with a serious case of the coronavirus is hospitalized, the average stay is 11 days, according to a [CDC] study based on January data from Wuhan — about twice as long as the five-to six-day average stay for flu,” NPR writer Pien Huang said.

The fact that none have a baseline immunity in combination with additional time spent in the hospitals compared to similar viruses is why experts worry it will overwhelm healthcare systems and staff.

The virus has now moved on to community transfer — which means that people aren’t just contracting the virus from hotspots around the world, they are contracting it in their own communities.

The virus also lives on surfaces for long periods of time where people can pick it up. It can stay on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel for two to three days. It only lasts in the air for about three hours. This is why it is imperative to wash hands and clean surfaces.

“This virus is quite transmissible through relatively casual contact, making this pathogen very hard to contain,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a co-author of the study from UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “If you’re touching items that someone else has recently handled, be aware they could be contaminated and wash your hands.”

The virus is spread through droplets that come from coughing, sneezing or blowing of the nose which is why it is important to cover the mouth and nose when doing so.  

The main three symptoms are fever, shortness of breath and cough. Showing a combination of those signs could signal the contraction of the virus and it may be time to seek medical help. 

According to the CDC, “If you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19 get medical attention immediately.”  Emergency warning signs include, “trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse and bluish lips or face.”

If a person knows they have been exposed or feels symptoms it may be time to get tested. There are limited tests so currently, tests are only given to people who meet specific criteria

COVID-19 tests consist of swabbing the nose. The nose swab is then tested with results coming in as fast as 24 hours.

“We project that roughly 56 percent of our population — 25.5 million people — will be infected with the virus over an eight week period,” California Governor Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter to Trump on Mar. 19.