What is a Virus?

Coronaviurs rendering
Rendering of the coronavirus with spike proteins showing. Photo by CDC from Pexels

At this point, why should we discuss the coronavirus if we don’t know what it is or more generally, what a virus is, so let’s dive right in and get the answer to this!

What is a Virus?

A virus is not a cell. Cells refer to living organisms, but viruses are not alive. And since they are not living entities, they are parasites that must live within a host to perform their functions. So when we refer to these entities, we will always refer to them as a virus and not as a cell. Now, let’s break down the structure of a virus.

A virus contains a genetic code, called RNA (Ribonucleic acid). RNA is similar to DNA but it contains only one single strand, and it is this code that contains the message to produce proteins that creates the virus. These proteins are called nucleoproteins, which give the virus their structure as well as enable them to replicate.

The RNA contains a blueprint for developing nucleoproteins. When it attacks a healthy cell, it will send in information to that cell to mutate it.

Surrounding the virus is the viral envelope. It protects the genetic code that is within the virus and sets an anchor for its proteins to infect the healthy cells.

Specifics of the COVID-19 Virus

For the coronavirus, spike proteins protrude out from the envelope’s anchor and act as grappling hooks that grab onto the healthy cells and inject the virus’s proteins. The spikes closely resemble a crown, which gives the virus its name “corona” and means “crown” in Latin. 

Illustration of a spike proteinGiven the insights so far, researchers have identified hundreds of coronaviruses. However, only seven of them can infect humans and cause disease. 

For decades, coronaviruses have continued to infect humans, such as SARS, and MERS, which infect and damage the lungs. On the other hand, there are four coronaviruses that remain highly contagious -causing infections that lead to common cold symptoms and worse. 

The seventh coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that causes the COVID-19 disease is slightly different as it contains the features of all six coronaviruses. It is highly contagious, fast-spreading, and causes symptoms like the common cold; however, this same virus can infect and damage the lungs. Hence, the seventh coronavirus that has infected humans is of the utmost concern to researchers and healthcare practitioners worldwide. 

Given its nature and that the viruses are constantly changing, the mutations in SARS-CoV-2 are critical to researchers. Here we take a closer look at how and why viruses mutate and why the mutation of SARS-CoV-2 is a major concern for global authorities. 

The Evolution of Viruses 

As a rule, viruses are constantly changing. They replicate and evolve within the host. However, it is important to understand how RNA viruses behave for a better understanding of how viral mutations work.

How do RNA Viruses Behave?

There are two types of viruses: 

      • RNA viruses, and 
      • DNA viruses. 

RNA viruses tend to be smaller and have fewer genes, making it easier for them to affect several hosts and replicate quickly within their host. On the other hand, DNA viruses are larger than RNA viruses and have a complicated replication mechanism. At the same time, RNA viruses can replicate easily and quickly. Given its speed and nature of replication, when RNA viruses replicate, there is always a potential mistake that can cause changes in the structure of the virus. These mistakes, also known as mutations, lead to variations in the structure and features of the virus compared to the original virus. 

Many of these mutations may not affect the properties, structures, and features of the virus, while many mutations can be harmful to the virus. However, a few mutations may make the virus better suited for certain environments, including a new host species. Hence, when an RNA virus enters a new host species and replicates itself, it is more likely to have more mutations to make the virus stronger. It is precisely due to this feature that epidemics like SARS and MERS and pandemics like COVID-19 resulted when the RNA coronavirus spread from animals to humans.

However, the process of mutation doesn’t stop here. Since RNA viruses continue to replicate within humans, they make a variation. While these variations are not robust enough to create a completely new virus, they are certainly strong enough to create new variations, also known as strains. Given these variations during the replication process, we have four variants of concern for COVID-19.

The coronavirus is an RNA virus. However, it is different from other RNA viruses due to its size. It is larger than most of the other RNA viruses, which creates more opportunities for dangerous mutations and the creation of new variations. 

Why is Coronavirus Mutation a Concern?

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

The mutation of SARS-CoV-2 is a concern for global authorities as the persistent changes in the virus are leading to the emergence of new variants. So far, the world has witnessed the emergence of new variants, including Alpha, Beta, Delta, and now Omicron, some of which lead to more severe infections and a higher need for hospitalization. Given the virus’s changes in structure and features, some of these variants have been more successful in transmitting the disease and replicating within the host than the original virus strain.

While words such as mutation can seem terrifying and make you believe that something dramatically different will happen with the emergence of the new variant, that’s not always the case. In most cases, mutations of the RNA virus have little or no immediate effect on its ability to cause disease or more severe disease. However, certain mutations that are strong enough to create new variations can be a threat primarily because the mutations in the virus can make it less recognizable for our immune system. As a result, it is more difficult to fight off the infection. 

Another concerning aspect of mutations is that the new variants can make anti-viral drugs and vaccines less effective, leaving individuals more prone to the virus and more severe diseases. After all, vaccines and anti-viral drugs are specifically tailored to target the specific virus. Due to this reason, we need a flu vaccine each year that targets its mutations. 

However, compared to the influenza virus mutation, the SARS-CoV-2 mutates relatively slowly, which is a positive aspect for researchers and vaccine developers. The slower rate of mutation may allow vaccines and anti-viral drugs to remain effective in controlling the severity of infection even with the emergence of new variants. 

Still, we are not sure how long our bodies will remain immune to coronaviruses or vaccines. While scientists and researchers are closely studying the coronaviruses, their mutation, and the emergence of new variants, we must continue to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. Continue to wear a face mask and maintain social distance till researchers are confident that the seventh coronavirus is no longer dangerous for humanity. 

Coronavirus – A Battle within China or a Global Epidemic?

Illustration of microscopic virus

About Coronavirus 

If there are not enough problems in the world, we now have to deal with a potentially deadly virus that is spreading throughout the world. Known as 2019 n-CoV (AKA Coronavirus), there is no known cure, but rest assured that at this time in the United States, the danger of catching this disease is very minimal.

Additionally, the latest analysis of patients who have contracted the virus are mostly the elderly, people who have existing health conditions which include those who have a deficiency within their immune system. Let’s read on to find out more about this disease and what we can do about it!

Where Did it Start?

Towards the end of the year 2019, several cases of pneumonia were reported in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China. The virus causing this condition was distinct and did not match any known viruses. This raised concerns as no one was aware of how the virus would affect humans. 

A week later, on the 7th of January 2020, Chinese officials confirmed the identification of the new virus. It was named 2019 n-CoV. Since then, the World Health Organization has been working closely with Chinese authorities and other international medical organizations in finding more about this virus. 

As of this writing, 

What is Coronavirus?

Woman sneezing with tissue

Coronavirus belongs to the family of viruses that are common in various species of animals. Earlier, it was reported that the virus circulates in animals and had some links with seafood and animal markets. However, there was a growing number of patients reported that they had no exposure to the animal market. This indicates that the virus is spreading through person-to-person contact. But so far, it is too early to conclude how it is spreading. 

In humans, these viruses can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold and flu to diseases such as pneumonia, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The new virus identified by the Chinese authorities has been temporarily named as novel coronavirus (2019- nCoV) and is the seventh type of coronavirus which has affected humans.

According to the WHO situation report 7, it is estimated that the incubation period of the virus ranges between two and ten days. However, this is just an estimate and further investigation is required. An understanding of the incubation period will allow medical practitioners to control the growth of the virus in the human body. 


Since the virus is commonly found in animals, it rarely infects people. But so far, it is believed that the virus is spreading through person-to-person contact. Similar to how it spreads with SARS and MERS, it is believed that respiratory droplets are the agents of transmission. Coughing and sneezing can contribute towards the spread; however, in the case of SARS and MERS, the transmission as a result of close contact. No such conclusions can be drawn regarding 2019 – nCoV, but the CDC, WHO, and other local and global authorities are trying to learn more about its behavior. 


The virus can cause infections with a range of symptoms. Infected people can have little or no symptoms, but some people can have severe symptoms including: 

      • Shortness of breath
      • Cough 
      • Fever 
      • Acute respiratory tract infections 

Prevention and Treatment 

Currently, there is no treatment for the condition. Patients diagnosed with 2019 – nCoV usually receive support to relieve the symptoms however, there is no specific antiviral treatment that is recommended at this time. 

Additionally, there is no preventive vaccine that can prevent this infection, so the best way to prevent it is to simply do your best to avoid exposure. The World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC provide the following recommendations: 

Hand Soap
      • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds 
      • In case water and soap are not available, use an alcohol-based sanitizer. The sanitizer must have at least 60% alcohol.
      • Avoid unnecessary touching of nose, eyes, and mouth especially with unwashed hands. 
      • Avoid contact with people who are sick and have flu-like symptoms. 
      • When sneezing or coughing, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or flexed elbow. Immediately throw out the tissue and thoroughly wash hands. 
      • Thoroughly cook meat and eggs. 
      • Avoid unnecessary contact with animals. 
      • Wear face masks in public areas, especially in locations such as airports, subways and elevators. 
      • Cancel all non-urgent travel to China and neighboring countries

Follow the John Hopkins interactive map on how the coronavirus is spreading.

What’s Happening in China Right Now?

Schoolgirl with medicine mask on face in a classroom

With 4,451 confirmed and 5,794 suspected cases in China, the state is facing an emergency situation. Almost 20 cities are facing travel restrictions. Screening statioWildlife trade has been banned. Authorities have also postponed the new session for schools and colleges nationwide. 

What’s Being Done in the US?

The CDC is screening all travelers from Wuhan and other parts of China at several airports throughout the country. They also recommend avoiding unnecessary travel to Hubei province in China. It is expected that almost three dozen diplomats and their families will evacuate the region. The CDC is also monitoring at least 100 people in two states in the US. 

Global Impact 

The US and other countries are working to evacuate their citizens. The Philippines announced that they will stop issuing an on-arrival visa to all Chinese travelers. However, the virus has already affected 11 more countries outside of China. So far, 47 confirmed cases of 2019 n-CoV have been reported, with five in the US and three in France. The virus is spreading not only in the immediate neighboring regions of China but is also affecting other countries including Canada and Australia. Thus, on a global level, the risk assessment of this virus is high. 


The World Health Organization is meticulously working towards knowing more about the virus. Local authorities and global researchers are also joining hands to find a solution to this deadly virus. New information will certainly help in finding ways to control the spread of the coronavirus and to save the lives of people not only in China but around the world.