The Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: What We Know So Far
Roopinder Tara posted on March 23, 2020 |
Coronavirus COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 FAQs.

Engineering.com is compiling the information about COVID-19 in the form of frequently asked questions. Please let us know if you have more to add, especially if you are from the scientific or medical community.

What Is a Coronavirus?

A coronavirus is a type of virus. There are hundreds of different kinds of coronaviruses. The National Institute of Health recognizes seven that cause diseases in humans, including mild ones like the common cold and deadly ones like the 2002 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic and 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). In late 2019, another strain of the coronavirus, named SARS-CoV-2 because of its similarity to the SARS virus, appeared in Wuhan, China, a city with a population of 11 million.

What Does the Coronavirus Look Like?

It looks like a pockmarked sphere with many protrusions on it. These pictures of it were taken with an electron microscope. The color is misleading because the sizes of the viruses are less than the wavelength of visible light. Color does not exist at the scale of the viruses.

What Is the Origin of the Name “Coronavirus?”

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, cause of the COVID-19 disease (Image courtesy of The Economist.)
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, cause of the COVID-19 disease (Image courtesy of The Economist.)

Coronavirus comes from corona, Latin for crown or wreath. Finding a crown or garland on the electron microscope photographs takes a bit of imagination. Imagine the eruptions from the surface of the sun, part of the sun’s corona, similar to protein spikes on the surface of the virus.

How Big Is a Virus?

Viruses vary in size between 17nm (10-9m) for the PCV virus up to 1,000nm (pandora virus). Most of them are in the 100nm range. By comparison, the E. coli bacteria is a hundred times bigger in scale, at 2 microns, or 2 X 10-6, m.

The small size of the viruses let them remain hidden even after bacteria were discovered to cause disease. Researchers at that time were able to filter out bacteria but found some diseases were still spreading. The disease-causing substance that passed through the bacterial filter was called a virus and thought to be liquid. It was not until 1930 that viruses were discovered to be solid particles.

Do Masks Stop Viruses?

An N95 respirator, recommended by the CDC. 3M is one of the recommended manufacturers. (Image courtesy of Amazon.)

An N95 respirator, recommended by the CDC. 3M is one of the recommended manufacturers. (Image courtesy of Amazon.)

The CDC is not recommending face masks, or respirators, as they call them, for everyone when they are out in public. However, those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should wear a face mask until they are isolated in a hospital or at home.

A close-fitting N95 respirator, named for the 95% of particles it is supposed to filter out, is recommended for health care personnel that are may have patients sneezing or coughing on or around them as they are able to catch droplets suspended in air.

Can I Pick Up the COVID-19 Virus from Touching Surfaces that Have the Virus on Them?
If you touch a tainted surface and touch your nose, mouth or eyes, you could catch COVID-19. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine of surfaces common to a medical facility showed a variation in the time the SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive on a surface, from more than three days on plastic and two days on stainless steel but no detectable signs of the virus could be found after 24 hours on cardboard and four hours on copper.

Will I Get Infected with COVID-19 and Die?

The likelihood of getting COVID-19 is very high. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom predicted that a non-mitigated (worst case) spread of COVID-19 would infect 56% of the state. German Chancellor Angela Markel warned 70% of the country’s population, or 58 million people, could be infected.

While getting COVID-19 may appear very likely, death is far from certain. Overall, the mortality rate was first stated to be 3.4% by the WHO, which has lowered it to 1% as more cases are found. However, COVID-19 is very discriminating about who is killed. Grouping victims of COVID-19 in China by age found that while young people have less than 1% chance of death, the likelihood of death after 50 starts shooting up. The 80+ group had a 15%, or about a one in 7, rate of mortality.

How Does COVID-19 Compare to Other Pandemics?
The Black Death, aka the Bubonic Plague, was the biggest pandemic of all time. It killed 200 million people, about a third of all the people on the planet, over several years, from 1347 to 1351. Said to originate in China and brought to Europe literally on the backs of camels (the camels had fleas) plying the Silk Route, it erupted in Europe after fleas jumped on rats.

The Black Death’s microscopic culprit was later found to be the Yersinia pestis bacterium.

Of the deadliest epidemics ever:

·        Smallpox killed 70% of the native American population after white people dropped in on them.

·        AIDS has cost 35 million lives.

·        The 2009 swine flu, caused by the H1N1 virus, may have infected as many as 1.2 billion worldwide and killed as many as 575,000.

·        The disease that has the worst chance of surviving is Ebola. The 2003 Ebola outbreak in Congo killed 90% of those that were infected. There is no cure for Ebola or a vaccine.

·        Of respiratory diseases caused by viruses, the worst was the Spanish Flu of 1918, which infected from a quarter to a third of the world’s population. One out of every 10 infected died. It was a time before we knew how viral diseases spread and still did not have sanitation down. COVID-19 is nowhere near the same mortality rate.

How Does a Virus Work?

Viruses are all over the Earth, in the water and the air. A virus is an incomplete organism without all the “machinery” that a living cell has. Composed of an outer layer, a protective layer of protein, it has several receptors that attach to living cells, either plant or animal. When attached, it can either worm its way into the cell or send in its RNA. Either way, it takes over the machinery of the cell and uses it to replicate itself. The cell becomes a virus-making factory, producing thousands of viruses. They produce so many that they will burst open the host, letting the newly made viruses spill out to infect other cells.

The body fights back. An immunological reaction sends in white blood cells. But it can be too late. There are too many viruses. The immunological reaction may go haywire, causing inflammation. Inflammation in the lungs can cause liquid to build up and decrease the lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen—more or less drowning the victim. This is pneumonia and why COVID-19, in the most severe cases, will need respirators.

Can’t We Kill the Virus?

Think of a virus like a zombie. It’s not alive, so you can’t kill it. But you can mess it up. Some viruses have a protective protein cover and can exist forever in a dormant state. It will take heat, fire or chemicals to destroy it.

How Best to Destroy the SARS-CoV-2 Virus?

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is not a very hardy virus. It needs a living animal body to survive. Out in the open, it’s just a matter of time before it withers away. The lipid layer is the main reason it can’t last forever outside its host. Lipids, another name for fats, are altered on exposure to air and chemicals.

Lipids are destroyed by soap and detergents. That is why everyone is telling you to wash your hands! And, use hand sanitizer. The chemicals in hand sanitizers, which include alcohol, will destroy the lipid layer of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

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