A new terror has gripped the world in its deadly hands. Empty streets, shuttered shops, and masked faces seem nothing short of a scene from a sci-fi movie. Coronavirus has become a sentence synthesizer for social media feeds and bulletins for some time now. If you still have not heard of this virus, then the following 10-minute read will help update you on this seemingly invisible entity, its harms as well as the preventive measures and the level of social wariness needed.

What is Coronavirus?

Coronavirus gets its name ‘Corona’ from a distinctive ‘crown’ made of a sugary protein present on the envelope of the virus particle. The genetic make-up of the virus is a single-stranded RNA that is about 26,000 to 32,000 nucleotides long. The coronavirus family is divided into four main genera, namely Alpha-, Beta-, Gamma-, and Delta-coronavirus. Alpha- and beta- coronaviruses are known to infect mammals like bats, cats, camels, and humans.

Coronavirus is the culprit for causing respiratory illnesses. There are seven coronaviruses that can infect humans. Out of these seven, four of them are common human coronaviruses and are responsible for mild symptoms of pneumonia, bronchitis and the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and considered inconsequential. The remaining three are more dangerous members of the family, namely:

  • SARS-CoV (Severe acute respiratory syndrome, beta coronavirus), 
  • MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, beta coronavirus) 
  • COVID-19 (coronavirus disease in 2019)

2019 Coronavirus

Artistic depiction of Coronavirus (Image: Google Images)

COVID-19 is a newly identified coronavirus. The respiratory outbreak that happened in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China in December of 2019 brought this virus to light. The epicenter of the virus was a local animal market called the Huanan seafood market. Scientists suggested that the COVID-19 originally came from bats as per the genetic similarity to other coronaviruses. However, they are yet to identify the animal that transmitted the virus from bats to humans. One study held snakes as a possible source but was later retracted on a lack of evidence. Recently, Chinese researchers have suggested that pangolins could be the plausible intermediate host.

This zoonotic virus gave a red flag when individuals who had not been to or come in contact with the animals sold at the Huanan market also developed symptoms of COVID-19. This indicated that the virus could be transmitted between individuals. It is an air-borne virus that spreads through means of cough, sneeze or close contact and is yet to have its primary reproduction number (R0) adequately determined. R0 is an estimate of the average number of uninfected people who catch the virus from an infected individual. The estimated R0 of the new infection is about 2.2. This means that an individual infected with the virus can infect 2.2 humans.

The symptoms of this new growing nightmare, according to the CDC, include coughs, fever, and difficulty in breathing. The symptoms are reported to become visible 5 days after being infected. There are no specific treatments or vaccines for the COVID-19. As per the CDC, the treatment involves medication and sufficient rest to relieve the symptoms. Researches are to be conducted to establish an effective diagnostic test as well as a vaccine for COVID-19.

For real-time data on COVID-19, use the John Hopkins University’s global infection data.

How deadly is the COVID-19?

So how much of terror and fear is justified for COVID-19? The answer to this lies in the comparison with a similar deadly member of the family: SARS-CoV. The pandemic of SARS affected 29 countries, killed 774 people and had more than 8000 cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) from November 2002 to July 2003. It was identified in Guangdong province of Southern China in 2002 at an animal market with civet cats as the culprits for transmitting the virus from bats to humans. Meanwhile, COVID-19 as of 10th February 2020, affected so far 28 countries, claimed at least 913 lives, and infected more than 40,536 people. It has dramatically surpassed SARS in infecting humans just after a month of its first reported case.  871 deaths are confirmed from mainland China alone. Computational models are currently being used to predict the next moves of the novel coronavirus.

Studies published in Nature showed that COVID-19 shares about 80% of its genetic make-up with SARS. This means that the vaccines and treatments used for SARS might also work for the new coronavirus. The studies also proposed a potential therapy of using infected individuals as a source of antibodies (proteins utilized by our body for fighting foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses) to neutralize the new virus. Moreover, an article published in Nature on 4th February 2020, concentrated on the use of different antiviral drugs currently in our arsenal belt on cell lines. The results showed that the drugs, Remdesivir and Chloroquine are highly effective in the control of COVID-19 infection in vitro. Since these drugs have been used on various ailments and have a safety record, they should be assessed on COVID-19 patients as well.

So far a reported 3,520 individuals have recovered from COVID-19 as of 10th February 2020. The threat is real, and the level of research done so far is yet to paint a hopeful picture. The question now is how to contain and stop the growing number of victims claimed by the virus? In order to stop it from becoming another pandemic of the 21st century, it has become imperative to follow certain preventive measures.

Preventive measures

Our safety from this new terror is literally in our hands. Some of the necessary precautions that you need to follow in order to keep yourself and your family healthy during these troubled times are:

  1. Wash your hands frequently and properly with soap and water or alcohol-based rub to eliminate virus particles on your hands even if there are no visible dirt particles. 
  2. Cover your mouth with elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing to prevent tiny droplets containing germs from spreading to others around you. 
  3. If there is a person in your vicinity suffering from fever or has flu-like symptoms, keep 1-meter distance to prevent their germs from latching on to you.
  4. Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose with your hands to prevent the transfer of potential virus particles on surfaces from entering your body.
  5. Avoid the consumption of raw or uncooked animal food products.
  6. If you or anyone around you have flu-like symptoms or finds difficulty in breathing, then seek medical care as soon as possible. Also wear a face-mask to prevent the spread of germs.

Besides taking care of personal hygiene, we also need to think rationally rather than emotionally to prevent further spread of this virus. The best option at hand is to temporarily avoid unnecessary travel to and from China, have quarantine stations as well as have proper screening protocols in place. The time now is to quarantine (a temporary containment of infected individuals by isolation) the infected areas and focus on rehabilitating the sick. Quarantine is the best way of disseminating resources to counteract viral spread. In terms of disease management in Pakistan, which is almost non-existential, we need to be more cautious and proactive in our dealings with this pandemic in the making.

All in all, the coronavirus is a bearer of fear, fright, and fatality. Yet there is hope within the madness. Scientists are tirelessly researching to develop strategies to contain as well as find a cure to this new threat.  So far we have been victorious in our battles against epidemics and pandemics. Hopefully, we will maintain our streak and claim yet another victory.

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