Confession of a COVID-19 virus
Call me SARS-CoV-2.
Short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. I’m responsible for the current pandemic: COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019). I plan to stay.
My animal hosts are bats and/or pangolins; my country of origin, China. Please don’t call me batty or Chinese. It’s neither funny nor productive.
I have hundreds of relatives, mostly in animal reservoirs. I’m the 7th one to infect humans. But it’s likely you’ve been infected by any of my four pesky, but mild-mannered cousins, who are major causes of common colds (5% to 30%).
In the last two decades, my immediate family has rained calamities on humanity.
My sister SARS-CoV-1 (case fatality rate, 9.6%) was responsible for the 2002 pandemic. In months, she traveled to two dozen countries – and was contained in eight months.
My brother MERS-CoV started the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Still active today, he’s lethal (case fatality rate, 34%), travel-stamped four continents. But current outbreaks are restricted to the Arabian Peninsula.
Because there’s no history of direct bat-to-human transmission, to infect you, I likely survive in a second host. The second host for my sister was the civet cat: for my brother, the dromedary camel.
But mine remains a scientific curiosity and the subject of international conspiracy theories – the stuff Hollywood craves.
Many believe I’m man-made. But the scientists who stripped me naked and studied my entire genome think only natural selection could come up with something as exquisite, and at times, counterintuitive, as me.
That is, I am Mother Nature’s perfect storm.
Ever since Homo sapiens (that’s your species, it literally means “wise man” in Latin) started to keep and hunt animals, pathogens like me, who can jump from animals to infect humans, have increased. Today, 3 out of 4 new infections come from animals.
The Pandemic Hall of Famers: HIV virus came from gorillas and/or chimpanzees. Swine flu: pigs. Bird flu: chickens, ducks, turkeys, wild common terns. Ebola: African fruit bats.
About one new pathogen pops up each year. But a thumper like me is years in the making.
Oh, you want to know what I look like?
I’m a ball. I’ve got spiky suction cups on my wall. In 1968, a group of 8 virologists (who spent too much time indoors, staring at my family photos) exclaimed, “Why the spikes on these viruses are so distinct, surreal and beautiful – just like the solar corona.” And the name stuck.
But my spikes are not ornamental. They enable me to grab host cells. Once docked, I enter intact and inject my genetic material. My host cell is tricked into churning out millions of copies of me before it dies of exhaustion.
My Achilles heel: my delicate fatty wall. When you wash your hands, soap (any soap will do) and water disrupt my wall and disembowel me readily. Soap and water have an edge over alcohol-based sanitizer – they clean the crud I hide under.
My other potential weakness is the subject of hundreds of ongoing trials. But it’ll take year(s)to find out if a drug or vaccine works. The first major Ebola outbreak was 2014; the first vaccine just became available in December 2019.
I know it feels like a lifetime, but as of April 2020, I’m five months old. So … please be careful with the “common sense,” “nothing to lose,” “miracle” cures. No drugs/vaccines have been solidly proven to work – yet.
What can you believe? I’m exceptional, and so are you. Studies show bacteria seed your blood regularly, doing something simple like brushing teeth. But your immune system clears them in minutes.
For now, stick to the basics: handwashing, social distancing. A healthy routine is your best bet to boost your immunity long term.
Still nervous? Watch a 1-minute video by UCSF on white blood cells, one of your immunity’s first responders, at bit.ly/2VBVGKj. It curls my spikes seeing them fold and move and remove the likes of me.
I know I evoke strong feelings: hate, fear, intrigue, annoyance – or total indifference. I know no border, race, religion or wealth. There’ll be others. What I am: I’m a true test of the flexibility, strength and integrity of your health system, of your community; the wisdom of your policymakers; and your collective humanity.
I want to leave you with a quote from "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu.
No, I didn’t read the book. I’m a virus, for Pete’s sake. I bet most Chinese never read that book either. I got my quote like everybody else – by googling quotable quotes.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”
We: humans, animals, plants and microbes, share one earth, one earth only. My fate is up to you – the wise one.